Joseph LAUBER (1864-1952)
Symphony No.1 in E flat major (1895) [36:16]
Symphony No.2 in A minor (1896) [37:24]
Sinfonie Orchester Biel Solothurn/Kaspar Zehnder
rec. June 2020, Diaconis-Kirche, Berne

The notes to this première recording disarmingly begin by asking ‘Joseph who?’ and it’s true that if one knows Lauber’s name at all it’s largely in relation to his works for flute and harp, not for large-scale symphonies, though he wrote six of them, all of which are to be recorded in this series. It’s possible he may also be remembered as Frank Martin’s composition teacher.

A brief biography of the Swiss composer, who was an exact contemporary of Richard Strauss, would also include his birth near Lucerne, music studies at the Zurich Conservatory under his composition teacher Friedrich Hegar, a friend of Brahms, and some further studies with Joseph Rheinberger in Munich. Then there was Paris where he honed his pianistic skills with Louis Diémer and compositional ones with Massenet. Later, on his return to Switzerland, he became professor at the Conservatoire in Geneva.

The first two symphonies occupied him from 1895-96 and are in four conventional movements. The First opens with Alpine horn calls, with echoing-down-the-valley replies from the winds. The music is genial, well-orchestrated, and nourishingly warm and even draws on a kind of post-Weber sense of theatre. There’s elegance and some opulent themes in the slow movement, its B section lightly danced, and with a few strategic outbursts to keep the burghers on their toes. The Scherzo has athletic outer panels and a folksy trio whilst the finale, the longest movement, perhaps best reveals the influences on Lauber. Though the notes speak entertainingly of this ‘heavy lifting’ finale having Brucknerian moments, they aren’t there for me. Rather there are fluent French models – songful and symphonically on the light side - Mendelssohnian winds in the central panel, and stern brass calls that bring to mind the opening horn calls.

The Second Symphony is similarly proportioned to the First and shares its eloquent construction and relative lack of ambition. Nevertheless, the Adagio opening panel of the first movement is darker in tone than the Andante start of the earlier symphony and there are some interesting Beethovenian punctuation points in the Allegro moderato that follows, finely structured without becoming stiflingly academic. Perhaps there’s a soupçon of Dvořák in the Andantino though without his vital charge, Lauber once again prioritising elegance over rusticity, and though the Scherzo is winningly charming, I’m not sure it presents as much of a contrast to the Andantino as it could, or should. The finale opens with a kind of brass chorale answered by the winds – a Lauber fingerprint – and there’s much easy-going contrapuntal skill to be admired.

Lauber shows himself to be a highly competent symphonist in these early two examples. His themes are attractive and his confidence in control of orchestral writing is obvious. He is clearly a product of his tradition and his harmonies speak more of mid-century than late-Romanticism. These aren’t passionate voyages of the symphonic soul, rather they are studies in refinement. They are deftly played by the Biel Solothurn Sinfonie-Orchester under Kaspar Zehnder’s direction. From the photograph enclosed in the well-produced and informative booklet the orchestral forces are on the smaller scale but that helps in the elucidation of Lauber’s counterpoint and there’s no lack of weight when required. For those interested in microphones, the many spot mikes used are detailed - so if Neumann, Schoeps (of course) and Royer are your thing turn to page 37 and read which went where. And in the meantime, let’s look forward to the next instalment of this series.

Jonathan Woolf