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CD Review

Salute to Christmas

  • Max Bruch:
  • Gruß an die heilige Nacht, Op. 62
  • Die Flucht der heiligen Familie, Op. 20
  • Hugo Wolf: Christnacht
Shihomi Inou-Heller, soprano
Gabriele Schreckenbach, alto
Klaus Thiem, baritone
Marie-Luise Wilke, alto
Philharmonischer Chor Berlin
Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Uwe Gronostay
Koch Schwann CD313013H1
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One of the consequences of performing and re-recording the same Top 40 classical works (anyone else waiting with abated breath for Levine's Beethoven cycle?) is that we deny ourselves the opportunity to find new beauty. I suppose I will surprise some when I say I don't find contemporary music all that neglected - misunderstood, yes; neglected, #If you hustle, you can find quite a bit. The same goes for music from the medieval, Renaissance, baroque, and early classical eras. Specialist organizations dedicate themselves to the music from these periods, and though you might not hear it live, you can go bankrupt buying all the CDs.

Paradoxically, I consider the century we know least about, the same one where most of the top 40 comes from - ie, the 19th. We know Beethoven quite well, but what about Czerny or Spohr? We can reel off a host of names that remain simply names to us: Goetz, Roentgen, Rozycki, or Hartmann. Finally, what of those composers known for only a few pieces from their large catalogues or known to a specialist audience only: Grieg, Goldmark, Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rheinberger, Wolf, Fauré, and Bruch? It's as if, in a city of skyscrapers, we continually walk the same street; the height of the buildings we erect prevent us from seeing other structures.

So I'm grateful to recording companies with the enterprise and the willingness to take a fairly certain loss. Koch, of course, has specialized in searching out obscure niches from every period. In a just world, this CD should be a winner.

Bruch, of course, is known now for three pieces: the Violin Concerto #1, the Scottish Fantasy, and the Kol Nidre. This was pretty much the case during his own very long lifetime. Yet, there are major works that deserve to be heard. I regard Bruch as incapable of writing anything ugly or totally without merit. In addition to three symphonies (all strongly Brahmsian), there's a formally intriguing and lively 2-piano concerto and a mountain of ingratiating chamber music (try the trios for clarinet, viola, and piano). GruB an der heiligen Nacht (Salute to Christmas) is a big, bopping Romantic work for chorus, alto solo, and orchestra. The introduction alone - rich and noble - entitles this work to stand with the Brahms Schicksalslied, which it resembles a bit. Die Flucht der heiligen Familie (The Flight of the Holy Family) for chorus and orchestra is less elaborate and ambitious, but still lovely - a triple-time pastorale, serene and with the communicative directness of simplicity. It seems to me much easier for any artist to produce the complex - one can manufacture so much of it through craft alone. The piece that apparently just exists, a part of the landscape, like a bluebonnet, strikes me as rarer and more difficult.

Lieder specialists know Hugo Wolf. The composer's fans included Walter Legge, who produced several pioneer recordings of Wolf's music. I've never been that much a fan of the songs. Frankly, most of them bore me as knock-off Wagnerian noodling (this is why people don't like Lieder), as do the few instrumental works, like the Italian Serenade and the tone poem Penthesilea. Christnacht, for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, struck me hard enough to make me want to go back to Wolf again. It's 19-and-a-half minutes of pure gorgeous, with compositional smarts to boot. Wolf adapts Wagnerian leitmotifs to construct beautiful song (Wolf also uses a Silesian carol as a major source of material) as well as a musical commentary on the text itself. Of all the great Lieder composers, Wolf strikes me as one of the most literarily sophistcated. He really does seem to know the craft of poetry as well as its affect. The scene is the heavenly host announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds abiding in the fields. But where Handel gives us angels dancing like fireflies, Wolf paints a vision of heaven similar in intent to Mahler's in the Symphony #8, though obviously less mind-boggling. The relative simplicity works to the cantata's advantage - the performance gives us the measure of the work; we don't have to imagine what it should have sounded like, as inevitably happens in discussions of the Mahler 8th.

If you're Messiah 'd-out during Christmas, take a listen to these, and perhaps Rheinberger's Stern von Bethlehem as well.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz