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Classical composers forgotten: unfairly and otherwise

Music by forgotten classical composers often comes in glorious Super Audio CD sound.

Music by forgotten classical composers often comes in glorious Super Audio CD sound.

The record business, despite sensationalized reports, is not dead, not the classical record business anyway. I have, piled in front of me, stacks of CDs - actual physical CDs, some lavishly packaged, some in glorious Super Audio CD sound (SACD is not dead either). On these discs are symphonies and string quartets and arias and piano sonatas from the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries by composers I've only read about in music history texts and by composers I never knew existed. Have you ever heard of Asger Hamerik, Robert de Roos or Gunter Raphael?
Hats off to anyone who knows the name Marcel Tyberg. The score to his Third Symphony, written just before the composer's death in Auschwitz, was lying in a basement in Buffalo, N.Y., until conductor JoAnn Falletta was persuaded to perform it with the Buffalo Philharmonic; Naxos released their recording Tuesday. A special prize to anyone who has worked through George Onslow's 70 string quartets and quintets. The three quartets played by Quatuor Diotima and on a Naive recording are but a start for a composer once considered the French Beethoven.
As I plow through these recent releases, I can't claim to have discovered a composer likely to get a full-scale revival. Much of the music, though, is quite good and fills in historical gaps. Some of it is on budget labels, which reduces the risk-taking for the consumer. But please beware of sampling small bits on iTunes, where taking music out of context can be an insidiously misleading activity, as any decent propagandist should be able to tell you.
One find is Lodovico Giustini da Pistoia's 12 sonatas for pianoforte (the predecessor of the modern grand) exquisitely played and recorded by Andrea Coen on a three-CD set from the often reliable, cut-rate Dutch label Brilliant Classics. The booklet notes describe these as "the mother of all piano sonatas," and I would have to agree.
Giustini was a priest who lived from 1685 to 1743, and his sonatas are a transition between Corelli and Haydn. There isn't a movement in any of them that I did not find full of beguiling harmonic and melodic invention. So take a chance. The list price for the full three-disc set is US$16.98. But note that Apple, ever eager to take a bite from your budget, charges a lot more for download - US$9.98 per disc and in substantially inferior sound.
Slightly better known is Giustini's Neapolitan contemporary Nicola Porpora. A collection of Porpora arias has arrived sung by a dynamo Canadian soprano, Karina Gauvin, and accompanied by Alan Curtis' excellent Il Complesso Barocco on Atma Classique. Meanwhile, hot young French soprano Patricia Petibon includes a Porpora aria on her high-profile Deutsche recital disc "Rosso," with Andrea Marcon's scintillating Venice Baroque Orchestra.
Listening to Gauvin's recording, I thought Porpora a dazzler in the category of a Handel or Vivaldi. After the aria, "Morte Amara," which Petibon sings so movingly, I was ready to declare the discovery of a major neglected composer. Then I turned to the five Handel arias on Petibon's recital, and it became clear the difference between real musical depth, the ability to reach into the deepest parts of a character's soul in a single aria, and simply really well-written music. Still, Porpora easily pricks up the ear.
The indefatigable Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, having recorded Rued Langgaard's 16 flamboyantly neo-Romantic 20th century symphonies, turns to another neglected, and I think more interesting, Danish symphonist, with a lovingly boxed set of Asger Hamerick's seven symphonies and Requiem.
Hamerik, who was born in 1843, studied in Paris with Berlioz and wound up in Baltimore in 1871, heading the Peabody Institute for 27 years. There he wrote his symphonies and married an American student half his age.
Many of his symphonies were, in fact, premiered in Baltimore, which is a forgotten factoid of American musical history. But Hamerick's fame mainly remained in Denmark. The first six symphonies have French titles ("Poetique," "Tragique," "Lyrique," etc.). The last is a choral symphony with a text exalting life and welcoming death. These are works of generous spirit, melodies spilling out, harmonies going in slightly unusual places, pleasing to the ear and spirit. They are of their time, gorgeously played and warmly recorded by the Danish label DaCapo.
CPO has released a set of five of Gunter Raphael's six symphonies. This German composer had a drop of Jewish blood but somehow managed to survive both the Nazi years and tuberculosis. He was respected by some of the important conductors, as is clear from a live 1950 performance of his Fourth Symphony by Sergiu Celibidache and the Berlin Philharmonic. Raphael's music is not wholly distinctive. Elements of Mahler and Hindemith are noticeable. But there is strong sinew to the writing and a spiritual element. Raphael's final symphony, which fills the last disc of the three-disc set, is also a choral one, a Mahlerian 73-minute setting of texts by Lao-Tse that is deep, moody, exhilarating and exhausting.
Marcel Tyberg, who also had Jewish ancestry, was not so lucky as Raphael. Born in Vienna in 1893, he was friends with the Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik and moved to Italy with his mother, to whom he devoted his life. Shortly after her death, and just before he got picked up in a Gestapo sweep, he entrusted his scores to an Italian friend, whose son then carried them to Buffalo.
It's a sad back story, without, I'm sorry to report, a happy outcome. The Third Symphony, an outrageously blatant rip-off of Mahler's Seventh Symphony, is so bad that it happens to be riot. I can't stop listening to it, mainly in disbelief, and wouldn't be altogether surprised to learn that this is some kind of PDQ Bachian prank. In any event, the work suggests that Mahler's symphonies weren't quite so ignored in the '30s and '40s as we've been led to believe.
If Tyberg was no Mahler, then Tchaikovsky is no Tchaikovsky. That's Boris Tchaikovsky and no relation. A new historical Profil release restores the Moscow Philharmonic's premiere of Boris Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony in 1967 to the catalog. Kirill Kondrashin conducts this startling and strangely affecting 50-minute Soviet score that has a habit of leaving its conservative home base and striking out into mysterious territory with weird trills and odd sound effects.
We don't hear a great deal of 19th century French chamber music but there is plenty, as George Onslow's 70 quartets and quintets attest. The members of the young Quatuor Diotima are Onslow champions, and they make a persuasive case for Quartets Nos. 28, 29 and 30. These were written in the early 1830s, just after Onslow, who had an English father and French mother, heard Beethoven's late quartets.
Onslow tries to capture some of the intent of Beethoven's late vision but his materials are more middle period. Ultimately, it is best to leave Beethoven out of the equation. A set of variation called "Preghiera" (Prayer) in the 28th quartet is memorable, as is much else in these pieces.
Benjamin Godard falls somewhere between Cesar Franck and Saint-Saens, and his two piano trios, splendidly recorded by Trio Parnassus on MDG, sparkle in a purely French way. Pierre Rode, a violinist born in Bordeaux in 1774, wrote 24 caprices for solo violin before Paganini did. A Naxos recording by Axel Strauss shows them to lack Paganini's razzmatazz but not scintillating virtuosity.
Leon de Saint-Lubin was the son of a French officer who moved to Turin after the revolution. Violinist Anastasia Khitruk, also on Naxos, presents him as an outright Paganini competitor, and a master of the salon. His Fantasy on a Theme from Lucia di Lammermoor for solo violin is a knockout.
In Germany, Heinrich von Herzogenberg was a Brahmsian. With a name like that, he is not likely to go far these days. But a string quartet and quintet on CPO are rich music with counterpoint to spare.
Four string quartets by Robert de Roos, a 20th century Dutch composer, are played by the excellent Utrecht String Quartet on an MDG CD. The Second, Fifth and Seventh are short and dull. But the Third, written during the last year of World War II, is a big piece with gripping drama.
What was Bayreuth like before Wagner got there? "The Court of Bayreuth," on Brilliant Classics, is a lute recital by Miguel Yisrael of modest pieces from the 18th and early 19th century. They are beautiful, and Christian Gottlieb Scheidler's Variations on a Theme from "Don Giovanni" has the friendliness of folk music. Little did this polite court know what was in store when the impolite RW brand would move in.
And little does a record buyer know what is in store anymore when going into one of the remaining record stores or shopping online. I've only scratched the surface.


Updated : 2021-05-13 07:48 GMT+08:00