This article is over 9 years old

CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Walter Braunfels and Beethoven

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 short-lived conductor remembered and more (and very good) music from Walter Braunfels re-revealed.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, op. 55 (Eroica). Ataúlfo Argenta conducting Orquestra Nacional de España (live recording, Madrid, 24 May 1957). SMETANA: Overture to The Bartered Bride. Argenta conducting L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (live recordiong, Geneva, 29 August 1957). RUPERTO CHAPI: Musica clásica: Prelude; La corte de Granada: Fantasia morisca and Serenata. El tambor de granaderos: Prelude.  GERMONIMO GIMÉNEZ: El balle de Luis Alonso: Intermezzo; La boda de Luis Alonso: Intermezzo. Argenta and Grand Orquestra Sinfonica (Madrid) (studio recordings from 1955 to 1957).  ica classics 5087.

Ataúlfo Argenta’s May 1957 Beethoven Eroica presented here is a live performance; and, while it is a monaural recording (its source is not clearly identified), it is high-end and focused enough where the minutest orchestral details and subtleties of dynamic handling come out unimpeded and enough auditorium ambience can be heard. There is slight compression, especially in fortissimo and thickly-scored passages, but those who spurn mono recordings as archaic should remember that we are fortunate to have a record of a performance like this at all.  It is an exceptional and forceful performance, with some really fine playing from the horn section (fine playing from all concerned, for that matter); the third horn “false entry” heralding the fausse reprise of the first movement is not the “polite” playing to which we seem to have become inured. This horn section is effulgent in the middle section of the Scherzo.  The Funeral March is Adagio assai, as Beethoven indicates, but not static by any means.  The Scherzo is lightning-quick but never at any moment lacking in clarity, and the full-bodied string tone (full-bodied at all dynamic levels) is the mark of a conductor who knows how to let his musicians play as they are accustomed to playing.  Hence the unbridled spirit of Beethoven comes out in bold relief.  Those qualities are increasingly apparent in the Finale, in which clarity and unusually finished playing are driven by a specially Beethovenian momentum.  This momentum is not lost even in the slower, introspective passage toward the end where the winds take the lead. When this section becomes more martial, without any change in tempo, this, too, is brought to the fore—as it should be.  Argenta’s exemplary handling of the transition from this section to the coda shows an extraordinary sense of pulse.  The audience responds in kind.

About a year and a half after that Madrid performance, in that same city, the 44-year-old Argenta and a student of his were waiting for the studio in the conductor’s home to warm up.  It was an unusually cold day in the first month of 1958.  The two men went to the garage and Argenta, forgetting to open the garage door, turned on his car and its heater.  The liner notes’ recounting of that unutterable tragedy doesn’t make it clear if the student survived; but, as we know, Argenta did not.  He had been scheduled to record all four Brahms symphonies in Vienna the following spring, and his United States début was not far beyond that.  He left behind a few recordings for British Decca (then known in the U.S.A. as London Records) and EMI, a few of them stereophonic, with Spanish and British orchestras and with Ernest Ansermet’s L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande — as well as with a French ad hoc group whose name might translate as “The Orchestra of a Hundred Soloists”. 

It was with the Suisse Romande orchestra that the recording of the Smetana Bartered Bride Overture included on this disc was made.  This is also a live recording, and from the same year as the Beethoven.  It reflects the same solid musical values and benefits even more from the spacious acoustics of Victoria Hall in Geneva. 

The zarzuela excerpts seem to be studio recordings, possibly from his extensive recordings of these works for Spanish Columbia.  Even in the often-underrated lighter fare, Argenta’s intensity and commitment come through.  This is indeed a welcome disc.


WALTER BRANUFELS (1882-1954): Concerto for Organ, Boys’ Choir and Orchestra, op. 38 (1927).  Hansjörg Albrecht conducting the Munich Symphony Orchestra and the Tölzer Knabenchor; with Iveta Apkalna, organ.  Toccata Adagio and Fugue in f minor, op. 42 (1933-1942). Hansjörg Albrecht, organ.  Symphonic Variations on an Old French Children’s Song for Orchestra, op. 15 (1909). Albrecht and the Munich Symphony Orchestra.  OEHMS 411.

A great deal of the music of German composer Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) seems to be enjoying a revival.  All of the three pieces on this new disc are first recordings.  The concerto of 1927, melding neoclassicism with an un-classical flair for the dramatic, seems to have a few palpable echoes of Josef Rheinberger in the purely instrumental first movement, which he calls Fantasie.  Most of the orchestral activity is the province of the strings, with brass and percussion used at strategic points.  There are no wind instruments or horns: Braunfels leaves it to the organ to supply the wind timbre.  The second movement begins quietly and mysteriously, with the organ underpinned by the bass drum and then the strings, who shortly return to their position of prominence.  If the first movement was neoclassical, this one is thoroughly romantic.  Along the way, there is an elegiac trumpet solo; after a long crescendo, the boys’ choir comes in with Sei gegrüsset, Junfrauen, Wohnung Gottes, reinstes Licht (Greetings, Virgins, the house of God, purest light).  The third movement grows out of the second, without any perceptible break. Here, the organ then takes up the thread of the composition, followed by a fugue for the strings which is occasionally broken by organ chords. Suddenly, it is the organ’s turn to take the lead again as it takes up the fugue  Neoclassical modernism seems to have superseded romanticism, and organ and orchestra (that is, strings) become one and then separate again and, in turn, one, setting the stage for a verse of Philipp Nicolai’s hymn Wachet aufZion hört der Wächter singen (Zion hears the watchmen singing).  Organist Iveta Apkalna is a sympathetic collaborator with conductor Hansjörg Albrecht, who with this recording his marked himself a champion of the music of a composer whose music seems to be coming back into its own.

Walter Braunfels was part Jewish and a strong opponent of Nazism.  Between the early 1930s and the early ‘forties, he had been dismissed from his positions in Cologne (he was director of that city’s Music Academy, and would again hold that position after the end of the second world war).  He did a great deal of composing anyway, uncertain if what he produced would see the light of day.  The Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in f minor, op. 43, is a product of that twilight zone period in Braunfels’ life, dating from 1942.  It was performed for the first time by Heinrich Boell in 1946; the present recording is based on sketch material used by Boell and collated by the composer’s grandson Michael Braunfels, ultimately completed by Hansjörg Albrecht, who plays the organ in this première recording. 

Braunfels’ Toccata, Adagio and Fugue is a masterpiece of personalized modern romanticism.  The opening of the Toccata a passionate outcry with searing dissonances, intricate passagework and much contrast of dynamics almost reminiscent of Max Reger.  Albrecht performs well on the organ at the Nikolaikirche in Kiel, Germany—an interesting melding, from the sound of it, of classic and romantic elements and apparently designed to play virtually everything.  Mr. Albrecht, who has been director of the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra for the last seven and a half years, has considerably enlarged that ensemble’s repertory (mainly  owing to his strong affinity for twentieth-century music).  He is a far better organist, at least on the evidence of his passionate advocacy of this work, than his predecessor at Munich, the late Karl Richter.  He has a solid sense of structure, of drama and of color—all required by this piece.  The Toccata lives up to its name, but it is really more than that: it is a symphonic movement of huge dimensions, even though it is only five minutes long.  The Adagio is a romantic outpouring, beginning with a cantilena (sesquialtera accompanied by string célestes and an 8-ft. flute in the pedal).  Then there is a homophonic and more thickly-scored passage, which turns out to be a drawn-out crescendo, but still eminently lyrical and a very touching and personal brand of romanticism in which a firm structural sense and a gift of sublime melodic invention go hand in hand.  The Adagio ends quietly, though not necessarily in a reprise of the original idea.  The concluding Fugue begins piano, and it is on a darkly-colored B-A-C-H-based subject.  The development section is another big crescendo, moving quickly from a mood of gloom and introspection to one of affirmation through a quiet episode and another buildup— just before the final stretti, the entire fugue culminating in a stupendous fortissimo climax.  The Toccata, Adagio and Fugue (in Mr. Albrecht’s edition) was published a few months ago by the Berlin-based Musikverlag Ries und Erler. 

The Symphonic Variations come from a more placid world—that of 1909, when Braunfels was not yet thirty years old.  It has a very pronounced martial character.  There is a marvelous sense of energy throughout the entire piece, which runs slightly over a quarter of an hour.  It seemed to have enjoyed great popularity when it was new, being premièred by Hermann Abendroth  and taken up by conductors like Hans Pfitzner, Ferdinand Löwe and Siegmund von Hausegger.  Braunfels’ Jewish origins and his insistence on not following the herd caused it to be dropped from the repertoire of most German orchestras after 1933.  Mr. Albrecht has done an inestimable service in blowing the dust off of this score, doing just as well on the podium as he does on the organ bench. 


BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D, op. 77. Lisa Batiashvili, violin; with Christian Thielemann conducting Staatskapelle Dresden. CLARA SCHUMANN: Three Romances, op. 22. Batiashvili, violin and Alice Sara Ott, piano. Deutsche Grammophon B0017923-02.

It is always an event when a performer of any kind takes a piece that has been a part of the repertory for some time, one that has been recorded literally hundreds of times and performed even more often, and makes it sound like something entirely new.  Lisa Batiashvili has certainly done this with the Brahms Concerto, with the collaboration of an unusually sympathetic conductor — Christian Thielemann.  She is not the first on records to elect to use Ferruccio Busoni’s 1913 first movement cadenza, which toward the end involves the participation of the lower strings (who offer an altered version of the movement’s main theme as a counterpoint to the soloist’s arabesques) as well as, at the outset, that of the timpani.  Even so, the choice of this one—among about a dozen available cadenzas—is portentous of this interpretation’s being “different”, besides being one of unusual merit and clarity.  This is as much a result of Mr. Thielemann’s involvement as it is Ms. Batiashvili’s.

It is an unusually good and insightful performance that carries the additional benefit of having been well-recorded (in the spacious acoustics of Dresden’s Lukaskirche).  It is not the drive to be “different” that gives it its definition and character, but rather the drive to get as much out of the music as possible.  Ms. Batiashvili has a vision of Brahms’ aiming at a kind of ultimate perfection in crafting this concerto, consulting with Joseph Joachim (the original soloist) on the shaping of the solo part — and leaving it to the soloist to choose a cadenza, or perhaps to improvise one, very much in the classical tradition.

Lisa Batiashvili is a musician who cares about each phrase, every inflection, every nuance.  Christian Thielemann validates his renown as a conductor who can go to the heart of a piece and, what is more, clarify any musical texture.  Clara Schumann’s Romances receive a sensitive and sympathetic reading from Ms. Batiashvili and Ms. Ott.