Classical CD Reviews: Music for Horn and Orchestra, Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s 2019 New Year’s Concert

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Markus Maskuniitty’s solo debut recording is stunning, Howard Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra play Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto with zest, and this is one of the strongest New Year’s Concerts of the decade from the Vienna Philharmonic.

Markus Maskuniitty’s solo debut recording with Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (RSPO) is nothing short of stunning.

It opens with one of the great performances on disc of Robert Schumann’s ferociously difficult Konzertstück for four horns. As if to set the bar for the rest of the album, Maskuniitty and his colleagues – Martin Schöpfer, Kristofer Öberg, and Monica Berenguer – realize their parts with rich, blended tone; spot-on intonation; rhythmic compatibility; and emotional intensity.

The bravura exchanges in the outer movements are executed with stunning command (Maskuniitty nails all of the high A’s), while the central “Romanze’s” refrains are pristinely balanced.

Oramo’s tempos are always on the right side of pert, while the RSPO accompanies with brio.

Maskuniitty follows up the Konzertstück with lush, warmly-shaped accounts of two relative trifles: Schumann’s proto-Richard Straussian Adagio and Allegro and Camille Saint-Saëns’ charming Morceau de concert.

He then concludes the album with a rousing account of Reinhold Glière’s Horn Concerto. This is a piece that also channels Richard Strauss in its virtuosic excesses (as well as Tchaikovsky, whose Violin Concerto served as a model). You’d never guess that it dates from 1951 (just two years before Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony!), so conservative is its harmonic language.

But the melodic writing’s thoroughly engaging and there are nice little touches throughout, like Glière’s prominent scoring for snare drum and subtle writing for harp. Besides, the piece is played with such uncompromising freshness by Maskuniitty (who provides his own cadenza – replete with multiphonics – for the Concerto’s first movement) and the RSPO that it proves a hard one with which to argue.

Indeed, the Glière serves as an exceptional finale for an exceptional CD.

Clara Schumann was the inspiration and driving force behind one of the repertoire’s great A-minor concertante works: her husband, Robert’s, Piano Concerto. Four years before she married him, Clara published her own Piano Concerto in A minor, and the piece is the highlight of the latest release in Hyperion’s “Romantic Piano Concertos” series.

Often belittled as a trivial effort (even the liner notes of the present album treat it a mite cautiously), Clara’s Concerto rather showcases a musician with strong melodic and harmonic skills, as well as a keen ear for striking gestures.

True, it’s no masterpiece. There are plenty of reactive echoes of Chopin and Mendelssohn (among others). Phrasings in the first two movements can come across a bit squarely and the finale (until it ramps up at the coda) is rather understated in mood.

But, considering the fact that this is a piece by a teenager who was a pianist first and composer second, these are forgivable offences.

The fact is, Clara’s approach to form – two short movements culminating in a big finale – is fresh, as is the fact that all three proceed one to the next without pause. And, while the orchestration isn’t always brilliant, a couple of moments are: at the end of the first movement, a solo clarinet and cello join together in octaves to lead into the central “Romanze.”

That movement is, then, given almost entirely to the solo piano. In the middle, a solo cello joins the pianist; near the very end, the timpani enters with some soft rumblings before the finale kicks off. Otherwise, the rest of the orchestra is silent.

Despite its sparseness, that’s writing of a maturity and restraint that’s breathtaking and one wishes this concerto had been followed by several more. Of course, it wasn’t – Clara never wrote an orchestral piece again – but this Concerto is a work that demonstrates many of the qualities that marked the sage musical advice she provided later in life to her husband and Brahms (among others).

Howard Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (TSO) clearly believe in the piece and they play it with zest. In the solo writing, balances between the hands are subtle but the melodic line always speaks. Throughout, there’s a good sense of shape to the proceedings and the chamber music-like exchanges between pianist and orchestra (in the second movement and during dialogues with the woodwinds in the finale) are tenderly played. Sue-Ellen Paulsen brings noble warmth to the “Romanze’s” cello solo.

One of the popular charges sometimes leveled against Clara is that, because she was a woman, she wasn’t a very good composer. That’s bollocks, of course. But, as though to reinforce the point, the present disc is filled out by three glittering, assiduously vapid piano-orchestral works by some of her male contemporaries.

The best of these is probably Ferdinand Hiller’s swaggering, smartly-constructed Konzertstück. It’s a flashy, longwinded essay that’s here dispatched with refined tone and excellent rhythmic sensibilities from Shelley and the TSO. Yet, while the Konzertstück lasts as long as the Concerto, it’s musical content is, by comparison, negligible.

So are those of Henri Herz’s Rondo de concert and Friedrich Kalkbrenner’s Le Rêve.

The former manages to combine the influences of Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt but without assimilating any of their expressive gifts. The latter, with its contrasts of mood, meter, texture, and tempo, suggests a spastic, if genial, fantasy – but one that you usually forget (or should) upon waking up.

Despite their triviality, both works receive lively, energetic performances. The bucolic episodes in the Herz are aptly rustic while the closing pages of the Kalkbrenner are played with controlled fury.

No two ways about it: Christian Thielemann is a bona-fide Straussian. The German conductor’s debut as leader of the Vienna Philharmonic’s (VPO) annual New Year’s Concert this past January proves as much, calling to mind previous performances by the likes of Herbert von Karajan and Carlos Kleiber.

Certainly, to a point, a Strauss waltz – in the hands of the VPO, at least – can play itself. And so this year’s selections of those chestnuts (Josef Strauss’s Transactionen and Sphärenklänge, plus Johann Jr.’s Künstlerleben and Nordseebilder among them) would have had to work hard to disappoint.

But a conductor with a feeling for and command of this music’s style brings subtle, striking advantages to the proceedings. Thus, on this album, Transactionen’s melancholy aura glows brightly. Künstlerleben swoons with perfectly-calibrated élan. Josef Hellmesberger’s Elfengreigen dances with symphonic charm. The up-tempo selections – like Eduard Strauss’s Mit Extrapost and Johann Jr.’s Die Bajadere – lack nothing for refined shape and churlish energy.

Perhaps most notable – and I say this not being a particular fan of the genre – are the strongly characterized readings of the program’s three polka françaises: Josef’s Tänzerin, Johann Jr.’s Lob der Frauen, and Eduard’s Opern-Soirée.

As with most New Year’s Concerts of late, the 2019 edition features several works new to the annual tradition. None will likely reshape your understanding of late-19th-century Viennese light music, but it’s a pleasure to hear such a lusty performance of Carl Michael Ziehrer’s Schönefeld-Marsch as Thielemann draws from his forces. And the Eva-Walzer (from Johann Jr.’s only opera, Ritter Pásmán) make for a lovely, belated inclusion.

In all, then, this is one of the strongest VPO New Year’s Concerts of the decade: Thielemann deserves – and has earned – a return engagement.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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