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Carl Loewe (1796-1869)
Symphony in D minor (1835)
Symphony in E minor (1835)
Overture ‘Themisto’ (1835)
Jenaer Philharmonie/Simon Gaudenz
rec. 2019 Volkhaus Jena, Germany
CPO 555 319-2 [59]

As the liner for this new release explains, orchestral concerts in Germany during the first half of the 19th Century became increasingly popular with all parts of society. Central to these concerts were symphonies thereby in turn creating a demand for composers to produce works to fulfil that need. Hence the seemingly unlimited resource of repertoire that CPO, and other labels, have been exploring in recent years. This new disc, and a very fine one it is too, is a typical example of the results of such delving into the archives. Carl Loewe’s name is remembered today if at all the more than four hundred early Romantic ballads and songs. During his lifetime these were considered fine enough for him to be called the “Schubert of North Germany” and Wagner to describe him as “a serious German master, authentic and true”. His instrumental, chamber and orchestral music is dwarfed by that he wrote for voice which includes – according to Wikipedia – seventeen oratorios, thirteen other sacred works and six operas alongside the aforementioned songs.

Exactly when or for what purpose the two symphonies presented here were written is not clear. The liner gives the composition dates as 1834 for the one in E minor and 1835 for its D minor companion. Certainly, this is exactly when an innocent ear would place them with the earlier work leaning more towards classical models and the latter more obviously an early-Romantic work. The liner note rightly cautions the listener to compare these works to those of similar stature rather than criticising them for simply not being at the level of Beethoven, Schumann or Mendelssohn. The same liner also suggests that there is a pictorial, narrative element to these works – a suite of songs without words if you will – rather than rigorously worked out symphonic argument. I am not sure that is true or indeed necessary to the enjoyment of these very attractive works. For sure, given Loewe’s immersion in the emotions and imagery of early Romantic poetry it would be surprising if Loewe was not drawn to a similar type of expression in his own music. As mentioned above, it is not completely clear why or when these symphonies came to be written. Given the consecutive years of composition but the striking differences between the two; the earlier ‘Classical’ the latter ‘Romantic’ – this applies not just to the musical style and content of the works but their very instrumentation too – I wonder if Loewe conceived them as a contrasting pair of works; ancient and modern.

Before considering the music, a word on the performances and recordings here. They are very fine indeed. The Jenaer Philharmonie is conducted by their principal conductor Simon Gaudenz and they play with ideal brilliance and skill in a style which seems wholly appropriate to these early-Romantic works. Interestingly, the liner biography for Gaudenz makes no mention of him or indeed the orchestra specialising in historically informed performances yet these specific recordings are very clearly emphasising several aspects of early Romantic orchestral technique. Gaudenz places his violins antiphonally to good effect. All the strings use minimal vibrato and a generally lighter tone. Loewe writes active timpani parts and this is emphasised here with the use of hard sticks and relative prominence in the orchestral balance. I cannot tell by ear alone if the wind and brass are using period instruments but again the internal balances are very clean and well managed, as is the recording as a whole. CPO as a label is wonderfully consistent with the quality of its engineering and so it proves here. The Volkhaus in Jena provides a generous but not overly resonant acoustic and the orchestra is ideally placed within it.

Both symphonies follow the standard four movement format. The earlier ‘classical’ symphony runs just shy of twenty six minutes with its ‘romantic’ companion two minutes longer with the latter placed first on the disc. The work dives into the opening Allegro maestoso in a stormily dramatic if somewhat Beethovian manner in direct contrast to the E minor Symphony’s more classical larghetto introduction to the main allegro. Gaudenz ensures the cross-beat accents are sharply pointed here and throughout and although there is no explicit programme it is very easy to imagine this movement as representing emotional turmoil. As a performer Loewe had conducted the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream some eight years before he wrote this symphony. Yet of the most famous contemporary composers it is Mendelssohn this music sounds least like. Loewe places the scherzo second and it is a world away from Mendelssohn’s gossamer brilliance. Instead this is much closer to the demonic gallop of the finale of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden which had been published just four years earlier. This is a very enjoyable and technically demanding movement and as such a good showcase for the neat and alert playing of the Jenaer Philharmonie. Unusually, this is also the work’s longest movement albeit just seconds longer than the finale. There is a central trio section that follows convention by being played at a more relaxed tempo – the length in part explained by the fact that this trio material is played twice. The slow movement is marked Andantino grazioso and is an elegant almost salonesque dance which does not aim for any profundity. This is a part of this performance where the orchestra’s classical performing style is most audibly evident as is Loewe’s addition of that most emblematic of Romantic instruments – the French horn – to his orchestra. The finale although not written as a theme and variations takes the initial musical material and repeats/develops it in varied form. This includes a ‘variation’ which has a near Rossinian good humour and bubbling wit. Given his activity in the field of opera it is hard to imagine that he was not fully aware of the Italian master’s work and style. Ultimately, this leads to a final peroration with triumphal brass. For sure this is not a work that pushes many if any boundaries as far as symphonic form is concerned but it is certainly enjoyable and very well played.

The ‘classical’ E minor symphony starts with a pensive but brief larghetto introduction, with the Jena players paring back vibrato, which leads into a typically late classical allegro. This is attractive if less individual than the equivalent pages in the D minor work. Loewe places the larghetto second in this work and here the influence of song is clear. Again Gaudenz’s choice of tempi seems ideal – expressive but flowing allowing the music to lilt most attractively. The scherzo is marked allegro molto but this dances whereas the equivalent music in the companion work is more urgent and driven. The finale is built on two brief motifs which Loewe develops and in so doing writes some very demanding passagework for the upper strings which is played here with impressive ensemble and clarity. As in the other symphony Loewe builds the music to a triumphal and celebratory climax. These are works quite literally of their Age – I would think any reasonably informed innocent ear would place them in exactly the right decade between Beethoven and Schumann. The disc is completed with the brief overture Themisto that Loewe contributed as part of the incidental music to the 1835 tragedy of the same name by Ernst Raupach. This was staged in Berlin and is based on Greek mythology. Given the date it is no surprise that musically it is very similar to the symphonies but here the influence of Beethoven’s Egmont is also very strong. But at just 4:23 long this is a powerful and effective work which plunges its audience into the drama from the first bars. Again the performance here is urgent and exciting with sharply defined accents, brilliant string writing and prominent timpani.

In many ways this disc is an encapsulation of the sterling work that CPO has been doing over decades resurrecting the work of unknown or at least under-appreciated composers in musical impressive and technically accomplished recordings. I had no idea that Carl Loewe had written music like this. Apparently there was a recording of the D minor symphony on Koch-Swann (coupled with his A major piano concerto) which I have not heard and in any case that seems to be all but impossible to find copies of. Even if it were available, I would find it hard to believe that performance would supplant those given here. Once one accepts the choice of the HIP influenced style this is about as good as it could get with the music presented in the best possible light. Loewe’s symphonies are not towering masterpieces but neither do they claim to be. However, if you enjoy early Romantic symphonies of genuine appeal and attractive musical content, there is much to enjoy.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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