CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Bruno Walter and Lorenzo Palomo

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews Bruno Walter’s Symphony No. 1 as recorded by Leon Botstein and the North German Radio Orchestra, and a new release of the works of Lorenzo Palomo.

BRUNO WALTER; Symphony No. 1 in d minor (1907).  Leon Botstein conducting the North German Radio (NDR) Symphony Orchestra.  CPO 777163.

George Szell, who composed a great deal as a boy prodigy and as a young man, actively suppressed his own output in his mature years.  “It doesn’t represent me any more”, he said.  The real reason was that he couldn’t meet his own standards as a composer.  The première of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck convinced Szell that he himself could never produce anything approaching it.  Arturo Toscanini, whose published output was less impressive than Szell’s (mainly salon-type pieces and songs, as opposed to Szell’s small but formidable catalogue of published orchestral and chamber works), decided to give up any pretense of being a composer when he encountered the music of Richard Wagner. (He, too, could not meet his own standards.)  Szell, however, did say that it was a good idea for any practicing musician to try his hand at creating music, “since you can get an idea of how the musical universe looks from a composer’s point of view.” 

Bruno Walter— Bruno Walter Schlesinger—began as a composer.  His first professional appearance as a conductor was at sixteen, while he was still a student, leading a performance of his own choral/orchestral setting of Goethe’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage with the Berlin Philharmonic. It gave him entré to the podium, and attracted the attention of Gustav Mahler—who hired him as an assistant at the Hamburg Opera in 1894.  It was there that, in addition to regular duties, Walter assisted his boss in reading the proofs for Mahler’s Second (Resurrection) Symphony, a work that Walter would one day record in stereophonic sound — and write the liner notes for the finished record himself.  He and Mahler again worked together a few years later in Vienna; at Mahler’s untimely death in 1911 at the age of fifty, the thirtysomething Walter — by then an established and respected professional — was entrusted with the posthumous premières of his mentor’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde.  It was his intensive preparation of these scores that finally led Walter to conclude that he wasn’t a composer.

Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians cites Bruno Walter as the composer of two symphonies, a few large-scale symphonic poems, both large and small-scale choral pieces, a substantial body of chamber music and several books of songs. The Symphony in d minor, the first of two, dates from 1907, when he was a few months away from his thirty-first birthday.  It is scored for very large orchestral forces and lasts an hour.  While it is a derivative work in many ways, as divined at its first performance by the Viennese critic Julius Korngold (father of composer Erich Wolfgang) and before that performance by Mahler himself, it is an effort not to be lightly dismissed.  Leon Botstein, who conducted this work several times in New York with his American Symphony Orchestra, does much more than merely “doing right” by him.  The Hannover musicians are in full accord with his mission. It is rare that a difficult, esoteric and long-forgotten work gets such treatment.

 What is before us in this recording is an ambitious work in an aggressively contrapuntal style and written with an enormously practical sense of what works orchestrally.  The first movement is almost Mahlerian; the slow movement sings with a romantic ardor.  A rather conventional scherzo gives way to an exciting finale.  It would be futile to describe the music, since the discovery of an unfamiliar piece of music needs to be the listener’s own personal adventure; and, more than that, listening to music is a totally subjective experience.  When anyone approaches a piece of music of any kind, he might be subconsciously looking for something; when he finds something that attracts him—be it a melody line, a particular instrumental or vocal technique or any number of factors that define a piece of music—he has found what he was subconsciously seeking.  This is one aspect of the pleasant surprise of discovering a hitherto unfamiliar piece of music. 

Having said all that, I have to salute Julius Korngold for his prescience.  Even so, while Walter’s symphony may not be a work of compelling originality, it is a work of consummate skill and deft and knowing handling of a large orchestra.  Not everyone can be Mahler, but it takes a special gift to handle large musical forms, complex counterpoint and a wide range of orchestral color, timbre and dynamics.  If Bruno Walter, as a composer, is not Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss or Sibelius, that is no reason to dismiss him.  Composing was an integral part of his artistic development.  But listen to this music, because it is worth hearing and because it provides a glimpse of one aspect of a great artist that, for many years, was concealed in the shadows.  Leon Botstein — who, in addition to his work in New York and in Europe, is in charge of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in Israel — deserves high praise for dusting off the score and giving it as good a performance as it could possibly be given. 

 

LORENZO PALOMO: Mi jardin solitario (My Secluded Garden), song cycle for soprano and guitar.  Madrigal y Cinco canciones safardies (Madrigal and Five Sephardic Songs), song cycle for soprano and guitar.  Maria Bayo, soprano and Pepe Romero, guitar. Concierto de Cienfuegos for four guitars and orchestra.  The Romero Guitar Quartet; with the Seville Royal Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Naxos 8.572139.

The exquisite tenderness of 71-year-old Spanish composer Lorenzo Palomo’s song cycles sets these works apart from much of what is being written today.  Maria Bayo and Pepe Romero are most expressive partners. The style of writing is unmistakably “contemporary”, but tonal and accessible.  The Sephardic songs are especially moving—the first two, especially: Penas de amores (The Pain of Love), which Palomo labels a madrigal, and Linda de mi corason (My Heart’s Beauty) are a perfect pair, leading into the other songs very smoothly.  There is an underlying sadness about these songs, whose strong ethnic flavor probably has something to do with the fact that Palomo (who currently lives in Berlin) is a native of Córdoba, where Anadalusian, Jewish and Arab influences dominate the local culture and folklore. 

The Concierto de Cienfuegos, completed in Berlin eight years ago, was premiered by the forces heard in the recording.  The first movement carries on the strongly Andalusian coloring of Mi jardin solitario and is superbly idiomatic.  The second movement, which Palomo calls Canto a la noche (Song to the Night), is richly evocative, opening with the guitarists playing chords against high string harmonics.  Soon, a lyrical melody for flute emerges; this movement closes with an even greater and penetrating tranquility.  The problems of balancing the delicate voice of the guitar with a large orchestra are deftly handled.  The finale is a percussion-happy, toccata-like piece (five beats to the bar) which, says the composer, says that “Cienfuegos never sleeps…the frenetic sounds of the bongos and congas can be heard until the break of day.” 

Lorenzo Palomo’s “new romanticism”, for want of a better term, is a breath of fresh air in the early twenty-first century.  As was the case with his spiritual forebears Albéniz and Tárrega, his music greatly benefits from the incorporation of native and ethnic elements.  He seldom quotes folk material but evokes folk idioms in his work.  It’s interesting that a Spaniard living in Berlin — like, to give one example of many, Frederick Delius (an Englishman living in southern France) — thinks more intensely of his native land than he did while a resident there.  Naxos has already recorded several of Palomo’s compositions, as well as those of several other contemporary Spanish composers.  One can only hope for more.

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