Emil Nikolaus von Reznicˇek
Three CPO releases convince me that only now are we getting a fuller
glimpse ofthe golden glowfrom the final sunset outburst ofthe Austro-
Hungarian Empire. Vienna before World War I—and even up until
the Anschluss—was as fecund a cultural capital as the world has ever
seen. The musical wealth was staggering. Many who were part of it
had to run for their lives from the Nazis and never recovered from
their displacement. But there was no new Vienna to which they could
flee, and the language in which they spoke was foreign to the people in
the lands to which they moved. It was also foreign to the avant-garde,
led by Arnold Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School, which es2140
chewed the old world of tonality and its riches.
Reznicˇek (1860–1945) exemplified this richness.He wrote with staggering
virtuosity in the vein ofRichard Strauss or Franz Schreker. CPO
has released CDs of his Schlemihl and Der Sieger, as well as his one big
operatic success, Donna Diana. Sometimes Reznicˇ ek seems to be taking
the Strauss tone poem idiom seriously; at others, to be making delicious
fun of it. He could flip it on and off at will with extraordinary
dexterity and orchestral skill. This might have confused audiences, but
2141 there is much to admire and enjoy in this humorous fabulist’s work.
Reznicˇ ek’s tone poems, Schlemihl: A Symphonic Life Study and Raskolnikoff,
brilliantly played by the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne,
under Michail Jurowski (CPO 999795). Reznicˇ ek inhabits the world
of late-romanticism. His once-substantial reputation was reduced to
the title tune of the popular quiz show, Name That Tune, in the 1950s.
From what I hear on this CD, he deserves a revival, especially for those
who love the works of Richard Strauss. I am tempted to call this music Strauss-lite. All I would mean by such a remark is that Reznicˇ ek’s
orchestration is highly accomplished and rich, but not to the extent of
Strauss’, which almost at every moment threatens to drown itself in
2142 its own sumptuousness.
Needless to say, with an unusual title like Schlemihl, Reznicˇ ek’s 44-
minute tone poem for orchestra and tenor solo is a kind of anti-
Heldenleben, Strauss’ celebration of himself. Reznicˇ ek apparently suffered
some rough times, including the loss of his first wife. So he resolved,
‘‘Before I in some way vanished from the face of the earth, I
would set down all my distress and sufferings in a sort ofself-confession,
leave something behind, as it were, as a testament in tones.’’ What is
interesting here, however, is that the music never really becomes all that
grim. As Straussian as it sounds, Schlemihl also contains some fascinating
premonitions of Bernard Herrmann’s haunting film scores written
a half-century later, along with shades ofMahler and early Schoenberg
of the Gurrelieder period, especially in the last movement tenor solo.
2143 This highly attractive, lavish music is a real find.
[HA6] Another CPO CD (777 047-2) [HA6]features the delicious Eine Lustspiel
Overture, which sounds gloriously Viennese and fun, and two
lengthy sets of orchestral variations, one after the poem ‘‘Tragische
Geschichte’’, by Adelbert von Chamisso and other on Kol Nidrey. The
marvelous performances are, once again, by the WDR Symphony Or2144
chestra Koln, under Michail Jurowski.
The ‘‘Four Songs of Prayer and Repentance on Words from the
[HA7] Bible’’ (CPO 777 223-2[HA7]), composed in 1913, exude a somber
<> and very dark beauty. This is very different music from Shlemihl and the
like. Of course these four orchestral songs, only between two and four
minutes long, still contain slight hints of Strauss, Reznicˇ ek’s friend,
model, and great influence, but no more than the few hints ofGustav
Mahler that also run through it. The harmonies are not as advanced as
those ofOthmar Schoeck or late Mahler, but significantly more chromatic
than in his Symphony no. 1 (1903), the imposing 55-minute
work that shares CD space with the songs. The performance of the
Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt (Oder) under Frank Beermann
is a class act. In this Symphony, the sheer orchestral mastery is breathtaking,
even if the work lacks a little cogency. If you think you have
heard everything, you haven’t. This is an eye-opener for Strauss lovers.
It turns out that he had real competition. Only music of the brilliance of Strauss’ could have blown von Reznicˇ ek (1860–1945) off the musical
map. CPO’s revelatory series shows that this should never have
Julius Bürger (1897–1995) was a student of Franz Schreker and Engelbert
Humperdinck, but career-wise he was better known as a conductor
and accompanist than as a composer before he fell into complete
obscurity in the United States. Two orchestral songs—each a good
ten minutes long—show not just the potential of the composer Julius
Bürger (had he made more of a career of composing), but also his
<> maturity and talent in the craft as a 22 year old. The character of this
music—to which the Toccata Classics (TOCC 0001) is dedicated—
shows its Viennese provenance, but his music does not have the overheated
quality sometimes found in the works of his contemporaries.
It is more redolent of Franz Schmidt, Joseph Marx, and Erich Wolfgang
Korngold. It is written in the full flower of a tradition in which
one does not yet sense decay or neuroses. The Cello Concerto (cellist
Maya Beiser) is a deeply beautiful work. The Adagio is very moving
(dedicated to his mother, whom the Nazis shot). How can anything
this fine not have been heard for more than 50 years? The Scherzo for
strings is a lively confection that could compete at the highest level of
comparable British works for strings and the Variations on a Theme by
2146 Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, too, are a delight.
The two radiant songs for baritone and orchestra, Quiet of the Night
and Legende, also on the contemporaneous Nimbus (NI 5808) featuring
baritone Dietrich Henschel, are perfect examples. The texts are
exquisitely and richly set, but without the kind of suspicious sumptuousness
that one finds in Strauss’ songs. Nothing is overboard or overripe.
Quiet of the Night is set to a Gottfried Keller text and is a study in
effective orchestration, with Debussy not so far around the corner, but
<> also dotted with exotic and janissary effects. Legend is set to a poem
from a Christian Morgenstern cycle about the life of Jesus and depicts
Christ on his way to the Garden of Gethsemane. Descriptive, expansive
and warmly lyrical, Bürger has a way to work his way to huge,
climactic highlights that he milks for all their evocative worth. For the orchestral songs, there’s little too choose <> between the performances
by baritone Michael Kraus and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
under conductor Simone Young (Toccata) and the Lucerne Symphony
2147 Orchestra under John Axelrod (with Henschel).
The Toccata Classics motto is to offer ‘‘forgotten music by great
composers, great music by forgotten composers’’. It has fulfilled the
second half of its mission with this release. It is an indictment of the
20th century that this man was discouraged from continuing to com2148
pose. Clearly our loss.
A very special favorite thing is Rudi Stephan’s Die ErstenMenschen (The
First Humans). Obscure music wizard Bob McQuiston, who runs a
great website about off-the-beaten-path composers and works called
‘‘Classical Lost And Found’’ first recommended that opera to me in
2006 when CPO issued a recording with Siegmund Nimsgern, and
Karl Anton Rickenbacher conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
It tookme a couple ofyears—until I came across the recording
on naïve—to appreciate this odd and appealing work of the youthful
and perhaps confused Rudi Stephan. This is his magnum opus, and
Stephan finished it just before the war—which is fortuitous, because
less than a year later, aged 28, he lay dead with a bullet in his head,
2149 somewhere on the Eastern Front.
The music is in the realm of Germanic post-Wagnerism: more
Schreker, Pfitzner, Strauss than Mahler, or Berg. It abounds in colorful
scoring, melodical, lyrical stretches, it exudes most of the mystic,
erotic, orgiastic, religious, sensually sexual oddness of the libretto, it
has three, four—more or less similar—powerful climaxes. It plays with
a large orchestra and organ, holds long pedal points, and shifts colors,
includes the glockenspiel and lecherous saxophone notes. Yet it seems
to repeat itself to the point of offering a sense of 90 minutes of ‘‘sameness’’,
although not in a displeasing way. The opera is presented with
2150 some significant cuts on this recording, surely not to its detriment.
That’s not much of a criticism in light of so much intriguing music
to be heard from a young man still and audibly influenced by the
reverberations of the Wagner operas. And how would such a Wagner enchanted young man have gone about topping the master, not just
in the creation of an ambiguous tonality but also as regards offering a
still more peculiar libretto?Well, instead of regularWagnerian brothersister
or nephew-aunt incest, Stephan sets an Otto Borngräber libretto
that suggests mother-son incest—namely that Cain covets Eve, and
2151 Eve, Abel (except they are named Kajin, Chabel, Chawa, and Adahm).
Kajin, sung with booming excellence by Donnie Ray Albert, in<>
terferes and slays Chabel (Wolfgang Millgram). Chawa, who is displayed
as a sort of prophet to Chabel’s proto-Jesus, is sung by the fine
Nancy Gustafson, and Franz Hawlata enlivens the otherwise dulled
down Adahm who is more interested in agricultural matters than satisfying
his lusty wife. The young Finnish conductor Mikko Franck
makes the Orchestre National de France sound like a first class ensemble.
It’s a wickedly good 90 minutes. Stylistically and qualitatively
it fits perfectly with the two other operas mentioned in Surprised by
2152 Beauty: Paul Dukas’ Ariane and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Heliane.