Fall Harvest

A round of ritual lamentations on the demise of the classical music recording industry has ushered in yet another bountiful fall harvest of CDs. In fact, according to Newsweek, while overall music sales declined by 5 percent last year, classical music sales grew by 22 percent. A large part of that astonishing figure apparently has to do with online digital downloads from enterprising classical music companies like Naxos, which offers 146,031 tracks online.
In any case, I have before me more recordings of more music than I ever thought I would have the chance to listen to, or that there will be space to mention herein. I think this is the golden age for classical music lovers. Here is the recent evidence arranged chronologically.
The Naxos label has done well by the 18th century, perhaps my favorite musical period. I am particularly enjoying the three Sinfonias by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799), played by the Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra, under Alvaro Cassuto (Naxos 8.570198). He was a near peer to Haydn in his level of imagination, and his music displays an endearing quirkiness. Dittersdorf was apparently influenced by his friend Wenzel Pichl (1741-1805), whose youthful symphonies from the 1760s can be heard on Naxos 8.557761, with the Toronto Chamber Orchestra, under Kevin Mallon. Each of the four fun works featured here are each dedicated to, and intend to portray, a different Muse.
In concert, Mozart actually played one of the three violin concertos of Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813) contained on Naxos CD 8.557815, beautifully performed by the Cologne Chamber Orchestra, under Helmut Muller-Bruhl, with violinist Takako Nishizaki. It was met with “universal applause,” according to the liner notes. One can hear why. From the same era come the lovely flute and string quartets of Jakub Jan Ryba (1765-1815) on Naxos 8.557729. There is more than unassuming charm here, especially in the very touching adagio of the String Quartet in D minor, ably played by the M. Nostitz Quartet.
Pure charm, or what might be called Haydn-lite, is what we hear in the music of Ignaz Joseph Pleyel (1757-1831), featured in a Profil release (PH07067) with the Moscow Concertino, under Evgueni Bushkov. Pleyel is better known today for the famous piano company he founded and for the concert venue named after him in Paris, the Salle Pleyel. However, when pure charm is called for there is no reason not to enjoy the flute quintet, symphony, and sinfonia set forth here.
Slipping into the early 19th century, I go by way of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), a student of Mozart. Hummel’s reputation is as a great piano virtuoso, supported by the quality of his many piano compositions, but it has been widened recently through the Chandos releases of his superlative Masses, composed for the famous Esterhazy family. Now, the CPO label (777 220-7) gives us a Hummel biblical oratorio based upon the story of Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea, Der Durchzug durchs Rote Meer. It was thought this work was lost, and there is no record of its performance. The recording by the Rheinische Kantorei and Das Kleine Konzert, under Hermann Max, is revelatory, especially in respect to Hummel’s brilliant orchestral tone painting, but also displays the requisite choral thrills. I always thought Hummel was an underrated composer, and now here is more evidence to support my view. If you know how good his Masses are, you will know what to expect in this superb oratorio. {mospagebreak}
I have been stunned by another oratorio, Christus, by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). I do not care for Liszt’s music, and was prepared to dislike this work. Instead, this nearly three-hour piece has left me in awe. Now, I have to rethink my whole position on Liszt. First of all, the orchestral writing is sublime. In a blind listening session, I would guess I was hearing a lost work by Berlioz of the pastoral sort he composed in his endearing L’Enfance du Christ. Then I remembered how close Liszt was to Berlioz and how generous Liszt was in trying to help him. Am I hearing Berlioz’s influence on the elder Liszt, or is this evidence of how much Liszt influenced Berlioz? I don’t know, but I love the music, especially as so beautifully performed by Krakow Chamber Choir and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Helmuth Rilling. The soloist and choral writing is radiant. I think Liszt caught some angels singing. The magnificent Resurrexit makes for a nearly overwhelming finale. Christus was apparently very well received when it was performed at the Vatican in the late 1860s. If you wish to find out why, do not hesitate. The great news is that you can get this three-CD Brilliant Classics set (99951) for only $8.97 at Berkshirerecordoutlet.com.
My next shock came from encountering a five-hour long oratorio, also called Christus, subtitled A Mystery in an Introduction and Three Oratorios, by Felix Draeseke (1835-1913). Although I was intrigued, I was not expecting to be pleased when I shelled out for this quite expensive Bayer Records set of five CDs (BR 100 175-79). Here, I thought, will be the provincial work of a late Romantic German composer performed by provincial forces at endless length. Wrong again. The level of inspiration and the quality of the contrapuntal writing is extraordinary. I just need more time to absorb it and will report back at greater length later.
While Draeseke was under the sway of Wagner and Liszt, Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) was a disciple and friend of Brahms. I have earlier reported on Herzogenberg’s massive and very impressive Missa, available on the CPO label (999 372-2). CPO has now turned its attention to Herzogenberg’s symphonies and issued Nos. 1 and 2, with NDR Radio Philharmonic, under Frank Beermann (777 122-2). The disciple did not reach the level of the master, though Herzogenberg shared a certain thickness of orchestral sound with Brahms. Regardless, these are fine, enjoyable works that demonstrate the high quality of second-tier music at the time. Any Brahms lover will be pleased.
Another intriguing CPO release (777 119-2) brings us the Symphony No. 3, by Dutch composer Julius Rontgen (1855-1932). I know and love some of Rontgen’s chamber music, which is top-drawer. This 1910 work is conservative for its time, which does not matter a whit now. It has a Beethoven-like spine, and its orchestral language comes partly from Brahms. The symphony has wonderful drive and energy. There is an overt homage to Beethoven in the first movement. Rontgen has his own character, however, and can weave some delicate, almost chamber-like lyrical tracery amidst the larger orchestral tumult. I like this work the more I listen to it. Fine performances of the symphony and the accompanying piece, Aus Jotunheim, from the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic, under David Porcelijn.
Another great chamber music composer was Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915). I was happy to announce several issues ago that all of his string quartets are available on the Northern Flowers label from Albany Music Distributors. Northern Flowers (NF/PMA 9944/9945) has now released a two-CD set of the complete quintets, two of the three of which are for strings and the other for piano quintet. A supplemented Taneyev Quartet recorded the string quintets in 1980-1981 and the piano quintet in 1968. The Soviet-era quality of the recordings is perfectly fine. The important thing is that it captures great music-making. The supplemented Taneyev Quartet digs in with verve, grit, and great heart. I aver that the Piano Quintet in G Minor is one of the great piano quintets. Taneyev, a supremely gifted contrapuntalist, also wrote with a vigor and passion that are staggering. The Russian forces take almost 50 minutes in this work, by far the longest of the three available recorded performances, but it is completely gripping. It is now my favorite version. Do not miss this music.
Any of it.

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. E-mail him at [email protected].


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