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CD Review

Heinrich von Herzogenberg

  • Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 50
  • Symphony #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 70
North German Radio Symphony Hamburg/Frank Beermann
CPO 777122-2 DDD 77:06
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Born in Austria, but descended from French nobility, Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) is a composer who did not receive much attention from the record companies until less than a decade ago, when CPO started re-examining his oeuvre. Most (if not all) of those releases were première recordings, and this one is no exception.

Herzogenberg's music is most frequently compared to that of Johannes Brahms, and the two composers actually were linked through Herzogenberg's wife, Elisabet von Stockhausen, who had studied piano with Brahms. Indeed, beginning at their key signatures, there are more than superficial resemblances between Brahms' First Symphony, premièred in 1876, and Herzogenberg's, which first was heard in 1885. A contemporary reviewer remarked, "The symphony seemed to us to be one whole gigantic reminiscence, though in the best sense of the word, of Johannes Brahms." It hardly seems fair to accuse Herzogenberg of copying Brahms, particularly when the composer was very up-front about his influences. For example: "All modern music continues until today to be one big gigantic [sic] reminiscence of Beethoven." Like Brahms, Herzogenberg was feeling his way around the symphonic idiom in his first published symphony. Sometimes the scoring is not optimally effective, which links Herzogenberg back to Schumann as well. Unlike the debut symphonies of Brahms and Schumann, Herzogenberg's First is not a masterwork, but it is a good and interesting work cut from much the same cloth.

The Second Symphony followed the First by about three years. In the meantime, Herzogenberg had taken a post at the Royal Academy of Music in Berlin, and then had suffered a debilitating attack of rheumatism. (In fact, Herzogenberg was wheelchair-bound during the last years of his life due to joint necrosis.) While he was recuperating, Herzogenberg completed most of his new symphony, putting the finishing touches to it in early 1889. It was premièred the following year in Leipzig to mostly good reviews, although some writers commented that the work was more conscientious than inspired. Again, this could well be a work to take down from the shelf when one has become tired of Brahms' four symphonies for the moment. Although the Second is not as Brahmsian as the First, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that Herzogenberg's Second plays a similar role in the composer's canon as Brahms' Second: a more cheerful work, and, in a sense, one that celebrates having gotten its predecessor out of the way!

This CD is a co-production of CPO and NDR, or North German Radio – Brahms country! The performances are everything they need to be: the orchestra plays with polish and with obvious interest in the music, and Beermann keeps the scores moving along with sensitivity. Cpo's engineering is excellent, and, as is usually the case with this label, the booklet notes are very informative. Anyone passionate about Brahms' symphonies should check out Herzogenberg's!

Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle