CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Justin Heinrich Knecht and Leonardo Balada

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews a forgotten 18th-century composer who makes a comeback, and new music by a compelling Spanish master.

JUSTIN HEINRICH KNECHT (1752-1817): Grande Symphonie¸Le Portrait musical de la Nature (A Musical Portraint of Nature) (1783).  Frieder Bernius conducting Hofkapelle Stuttgart.  Three Arias from the comic opera Der Schulz im Dorfe oder Der verliebte Herr Doctor (The Village Sheriff or The Doctor in Love) (1788). Sarah Wegener, soprano; with Bernius and Hofkapelle Stuttgart.  Overture for the Prologue to the Marriage Ceremony of Princess Katharine of Württemburg and Prince Jérôme of France (1807). Bernius and Hofkapelle Stuttgart.  Bravura aria (Lispelt nun, ihr Flötentöne [Whisper, you fluted tones]) for the musical celebration of the King’s birthday. Wegener, soprano; with Bernius and Hofkapelle Stuttgart.  Overture to Die Aeolsharfe oder Der Triumph der Musik und Liebe (The Aeolian Harp, or the Triumph of Music and Love) (1807).  Bernius and Hofkapelle Stuttgart. Carus 83.228.

Justin Heinrich Knecht is a name largely known, for the most part, only to archivists.  He was a church musician and a composer of comic operas — a not incongruous combination in the final years of the eighteenth century. He was born in, and died in, the same town; in some quarters, he was respected.  Beethoven owned a copy of his organ method.  He was endlessly angling for a court appointment (which he ultimately got), not necessarily lucrative in itself but something which held the promise of better opportunities coming his way.   Almost everything on this disc is being treated to a first recording—a mix of a quasi-programmatic symphony, a few operatic excerpts and an “official” overture.  These are samplings from a body of work spanning a quarter of a century (1783 to 1808).  The recordings were done at various venues in Karlsrühe and Stuttgart over the last fourteen years: the operatic arias and the ceremonial overture of 1807 were set down last year.

Justin Heinrich Knecht - Grande SymphonieFrieder Bernius, an imaginative conductor who—at least on records—has gained a reputation as a champion of neglected music, is heard here with a relatively new period-instrument group called Hofkapelle Stuttgart.  The problem, particularly with gut strings and the old transverse or “German” flutes and old-style oboes, is that there are always hazards of intonation and problems with balance.  It seems as though most of what it in this music could better be revealed through the media of modern instruments—which seem to offer a better realization of the kind of flexible dynamics and orchestral blending that composers of the time were seeking.  Even so, Bernius gets as much out of the music as one can get.

The Grand Symphony of 1783 is not a musically “great” work in the sense of most of the scores that composers like Haydn, Mozart, Pleyel, Cannabich, Carl Stamitz, Gyrowetz and others were turning out at about the same time.  There are bits of musical imitation of nature—ostinato figures for muted violins suggesting rustling of leaves in a breeze, storm sequences with trumpets and drums, etc.  It is “pretty” music, especially in the last movement, which Knecht calls A Hymn with Variations (L’inno con variazioni), where a recurring violin solo is featured.  The five movements seem to flow into each other; each one seems to lack its own completeness.  The symphony runs slightly less than half an hour.

Knecht seems to have come into his own with the coming of white hair and the turn of the nineteenth century. There’s an impetus that seems to be lacking in the earlier pieces.  The energy of the allegro con brio of the ceremonial Overture of 1807 is more Cherubinian than Beethovenian, and there is even more heft and a feeling of musical “drive” in the Aeolian Harp overture, written at about the same time.  Bernius and his ensemble have, incidentally, recorded the complete four-act opera (Carus 83.220: three CDs), which seems to be the first performance of the work since it was staged in March 1807. 

The arias for The Village Sheriff are pleasant if unexceptional. Sarah Wegener has a warm and flexible voice and is judicious enough not to make these arias anything they are not.   Bernius is plugging a huge hole in the gap of recorded repertory: very little music by Knecht, if any, has been recorded over the last fifty to sixty years.


LEONARDO BALADA: Caprichos No. 1, Homage to Federico García Lorca (2003).  Bertrand Piétu, guitar; with the Iberian Chamber Orchestra conducted by José Luis Temes.  Caprichos No. 5, Homage to Isaac Albéniz (2008).  Aldo Mata, ‘cello; with Temes and the Iberian Chamber Orchestra.  A Little Night Music in Harlem (2006).  Temes and the Iberian Chamber Orchestra. Reflejos (1988).  Tatiana Franco, flute; with Temes and the Iberian Chamber Orchestra. Naxos 8.572565.

Leonardo Balada, who turns 79 this year, is not the typical avant-garde composer.  His writing is tonal with ample dissonance, and he uses a great deal of polytonal chord-like structures much like those favored by William Schuman in his maturity.  He is a riveting colorist and has a most unusual flair for writing for stringed instruments, both bowed and plucked, and is particularly fond of harmonics and (in the case of bowed strings) near the bridge or over the bridge effects — to say nothing of col legno, but col legno has been in use at least since Mozart.  A lot of what makes Balada who and what he is probably has to do with his Catalan heritage, and his strong attraction to instrumental virtuosity.  One has to listen to the first few bars of Caprichos No. 1 to sense that something special is going on—this composer not only understands the guitar, but stretches its potential (including violinistic harmonics).  At one point, high violin harmonics are used as a counterpoint to the guitarist’s passagework. 

His treatment of the music of Albéniz in Caprichos No. 5 subjects the pianist-composer’s demanding and interesting music to transparencias (transparencies), quite the opposite of diferencias (variations).  The more overtly lyrical aspects of the music are given to the ‘cellist, whereas the orchestra enunciates Balada’s highly original chordal sonorities, which he calls “traditional chords”.  The technique of “transparency”, in which an existing piece of music is presented in a surrealist way—not really recognizable all the time, although snatches of the familiar music come to the fore now and then—, is taken to new dimensions in Night Music in Harlem, in which motifs from Mozart’s familiar string serenade Eine Kleine Nachtmusik  are presented in Balada’s idiosyncratic treatment, not always readily discernible in a variety of textures. Mozart’s ending of the last movement presented intact at the very end of the eleven-minute exploration.  Exploration is what Balada’s music is all about.  There is great ingenuity, frank enjoyment of the compositional adventure and a great deal of humor in this music.  This is not music that everyone will take to at first hearing, and not “music-about-other-music” in the sense of Respighi’s various orchestral tableaux evoking the past or even Luciano Berio’s free treatment of Schubert’s incomplete tenth symphony (Renderings).  For this writer, it’s music that’s fun to listen to. 

The earlier Reflejos, in which the flute is not a solo instrument but a part of the string ensemble, again shows Balada’s fondness for harmonics and diversity of texture.  There are two movements: Pena (Sorrow) and Alegrías, which Balada translates as Exuberance rather than “joys” or “happiness”.  In Pena, repeated notes and ostinato figures contrast with sustained choral passages.  There is a thrilling, almost Bartókian climax, growing out of a similarly Bartókian unison passages, leading to a quiet ending.  Alegrías, a more concise piece, lives up to its name, vehemently rhythmic and full of enormous interest.  There is a lot of variety in solo and ensemble pizzicato here, to say nothing of varieties of color and texture.

Leonardo Balada, best known for his opera Cristóbal Colón (Naxos 8.660237/38, with José Carreras and Montserrat Caballé) and several large symphonic scores (among them the Steel Symphony, written for and premièred and recorded by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Lorin Maazel), has America as well as his native Barcelona in his blood: he has been living in this country for a little over forty years, serving as University Professor of Composition at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  In addition to a degree from the Conservatorio del Liceu in Barcelona, he was trained at Juilliard and numbers Vincent Persichetti and Aaron Copland among his teachers.  He also studied conducting with Igor Markevitch.  His objective is to acknowledge both past and present, and to use “several techniques to achieve one style”.