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CD Review

Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek

  • Symphony #1 "Tragic"
  • Four Songs of Prayer and Repentance 1
1 Marina Prudenskaja, mezzo-soprano
Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt/Frank Beermann
CPO 777223-2 DDD 68:50
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The ever-enterprising CPO label is determined that Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945) should be remembered for something other than his scintillating Donna Diana overture. In recent years, CPO has released several discs devoted to this composer – including, one might add, a complete recording of the aforementioned opera. This latest release, recorded in May 2006, in some ways only adds to the confusion, because here is a composer who cannot be pinned down or stereotyped.

This symphony was premièred in January 1903, and was lost soon after, only reappearing in the late 1980s. (Even today, it remains unpublished.) Quite why it is a "tragic" symphony is not clear, and annotator Eckhardt van den Hoogen seems to be suggesting that the composer's tongue was at least partly in his cheek. (I write "seems to," because van den Hoogen's florid prose itself is multi-layered and somewhat ironic.) The composer insisted that the symphony had no program, and then went on to provide a program anyway. It seems that the first movement initially presents us with the "symbol of a character bearing a tragic conflict within himself," and this is complemented by a "female character." The two themes are opposed and there is a "short erotic episode." And so on! Next comes a Scherzo, an Adagio, and finally a set of variations, culminating in "madness, collapse, catastrophe." The concept sounds oh-so-very Mahlerian, but as van den Hoogen points out (concerning the third movement), we get "Mahlerian touches without Mahlerian tours into all that is wrong in the world." Without sounding derivative, this symphony raids the treasure trove of 18th-century German music, from Beethoven to Wagner, and from Bruckner to Richard Strauss, and casts lingering glances at Tchaikovsky as well. It's an epic work that adds up to rather less than the sum of its parts, but for all its faults and frustrations, it is fascinating and certainly not poor use of an hour!

The Four Songs of Prayer and Repentance were completed in 1913. These also are odd ducks, although, with their sacred texts, they are as earnest as can be. In each song, with no orchestral preparation, the soloist launches into the text. The settings are sensitive but not illustrative, and certainly not wasteful, because nothing is repeated, and once the singer runs out of words, the song comes to a halt! The longest of the four lasts only 4:03, and the first is half that length. Mezzo Marina Prudenskaja sings them simply and intelligently, with what is clearly a very attractive voice.

The Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt was founded in 1842, but hasn't really had an international reputation until recently. It makes a positive impression on this recording, sounding neither underpowered nor half-hearted as it makes its way through this unusual music. Conductor Beermann leads the orchestra sympathetically, and one feels that the performers have given these works every possible chance to succeed. The engineering is fine as well.

This is not an essential symphony, but those who want to wallow in a late Romantic work that isn't too neurotic might find Reznicek's symphony congenial, despite its subtitle!

Copyright © 2009, Raymond Tuttle