About this Recording
8.572770 - PFITZNER, H.: Symphony in C Major / SCHUMANN, R.: Concertstuck (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
English 

Robert Schumann (1810–1856) • Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) • Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) • Anton Webern (1883–1945) • Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949)

 

For German composers of the nineteenth century, the sound of the horn evoked a sense of magic, heroism or fantasy closely aligned with the Romantic spirit of their time. Robert Schumann used the horn prominently in a number of works. The most substantial is his Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, composed in 1849. This work is essentially a concerto with four soloists, and Schumann cast it in the traditional concerto format of three movements in a fast-slow-fast pattern.

Schumann sounds a heroic note at the start of the piece. Here a pair of introductory chords prompts a thrilling fanfare for the horn quartet. An orchestral echo of the fanfare leads to a broad theme that proves the source from which much of the first movement flows. In contrast to the intrepid character of this opening movement, the ensuing Romanze brings music that is introspective and, for the most part, somber in tone. Schumann lightens the movement’s complexion only during a central episode, where the orchestra introduces a lyrical melody. Finally, several trumpet fanfares lift the music out of tonal shadows and propel it directly into the finale. The horn quartet and orchestra proceed to course through a succession of thematic ideas, including a recollection of the major-key melody heard during the middle of the preceding movement.

During the early part of his career, Schumann found a champion in Felix Mendelssohn, the most important German musician of the late 1830s and early 1840s. Mendelssohn was, during much of this time, the music director of the celebrated Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, and with that ensemble he conducted the première performances of Schumann’s first two symphonies and Piano Concerto. It is doubtful that Schumann would have developed as a composer of orchestral music quite as he did without Mendelssohn’s encouragement and support.

Mendelssohn was the scion of a remarkable family, one in which the arts were highly valued. His father, a prosperous banker, made his spacious house in Berlin a center for intellectual and artistic activity, and it was his silver wedding anniversary, in 1829, that occasioned the overture presented on this recording. This event was celebrated with festivities that included the performance of a play with music, produced by the celebrants’ four children and various friends. Titled Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde, (literally The Homecoming from Abroad, but usually translated as Son and Stranger), this operetta began with an overture by Felix.

Mendelssohn’s Overture observes the classical German overture structure of an introduction in moderate tempo followed by a faster main body of music. The first portion of the piece establishes a lilting theme with a somewhat sentimental, folkloric sound. The ensuing Allegro brings a succession of well-contrasted melodies, and Mendelssohn concludes the work with an abbreviated reprise of its initial theme.

Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op 13, underwent a protracted genesis. The composer began writing this work in 1834 as a set of piano études on a single theme. Before finishing it, he set the work aside for two years, returning to it only in September 1836, at which time he reported composing études “with great energy and excitement.” Schumann published the music in 1837 as “Etudes of Orchestral Character for the Piano” but revised it in 1852. Even this did not realize the music in its definitive form. In 1873 Johannes Brahms edited an expanded version of the work that included five variations not published in earlier versions.

The title Symphonic Etudes indicates something of the fullness of sonority Schumann brought to this music. In view of this, it is hardly surprising that a number of musicians would venture orchestral transcriptions of at least parts of the work. The most famous to have done so was Piotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky, who greatly admired Schumann’s music generally. In 1864 Tchaikovsky arranged two of the études for orchestra: a brief Adagio (No 11) and an Allegro brillante (No 12). The Russian composer was, at this time, still a student at the Conservatory in St Petersburg, yet his scoring of these pieces foretells the skilled orchestral composer he would become.

Just as Mendelssohn championed Schumann and his music at a formative stage of the latter’s career, so Schumann heralded Johannes Brahms. The two composers met in 1853. Brahms was just twenty and a fledgling musician; Schumann, 23 years his senior, was well established as a composer and an influential music critic. Schumann used this latter position to proclaim Brahms’s genius in a famous article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a periodical he had founded and edited.

Over the years, Brahms developed a strong attraction to the gypsy music of Hungary. He evoked this folk-music in several of his compositions, notably his Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy Songs), Op 103, and the finale of his Violin Concerto. But Brahms’ most forthright rendition of the gypsy style came with the 21 Hungarian Dances he published between 1869 and 1880. The composer scored these pieces for piano duet and transcribed three of them for orchestra. The others have been orchestrated by various musicians, including Albert Parlow, whose arrangements of four Hungarian Dances appear on this recording.

Hungarian Dance No 5 in G minor is the most widely familiar of these pieces, thanks to its famous initial melody. The ensuing dance, No 6 in D major, also is well known. Here, as in the preceding number, abrupt shifts in tempo and texture mimic the improvisational freedom that Hungary’s gypsy musicians have traditionally brought to their performances. Hungarian Dance No 11 in D minor strikes a wistful note; No 16 in F minor begins in a similar vein, but two lively episodes impart a joyous quality, and this prevails at the close.

Anton Webern might, on casual consideration, seem out of place on a recording devoted to musical expressions of German Romanticism. Webern is best known for the austere, abstract compositions of his maturity, works whose brittle textures, atonality and compressed scale proved a major influence on musical thinking in the wake of World War II. Yet Webern came of age in the twilight glow of German Romanticism, and his earliest compositions are closer in style to Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strauss than to the mid-twentieth-century avant-garde that claimed him as its prophet. Among those early works is his Langsammer Satz.

Webern wrote this “slow movement,” as its title describes it, in June 1905, scoring it for string quartet. The music’s lush harmonies and expressive melodic lines convey a Romantic ardor that attains quite ecstatic heights in the closing section. Those qualities fairly demand a richer palette of instrumental colors than strings alone provide, a demand satisfied in the orchestration by Gerard Schwarz heard here.

Hans Pfitzner was a contemporary of Richard Strauss, and like that composer he represents the final phase of German Romanticism in music. Although praised by Mahler and Thomas Mann, Pfitzner’s music has largely fallen into obscurity. Only his opera Palestrina still receives occasional performances.

Pfitzner composed three symphonies, the last being his Opus 46. This work dates from 1940 and bears the subtitle “An die Freunde” (“To My Friends”). It unfolds as a single movement divided into three sections. The opening measures provide another instance of the Romantic association of the horn with heroic utterance, as this instrument announces a proud theme that quickly is taken up by trumpets. Strings and clarinets shortly introduce a richly harmonized second subject. A third idea, in buoyant rhythms, then sounds in the woodwinds. Pfitzner uses all three themes in an imaginative development fantasy. After this, the pace of events slows for the symphony’s central section, where ardent singing by the English horn sets events in motion. A strong chord with cymbal accent launches the finale, an energetic affair that includes a climactic reprise of the theme that opened the symphony.


Paul Schiavo


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