D’ALBERT: Symphonic Prologue to the Opera “Tiefland,” Op. 34; Symphony in F Major, Op. 4 – MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Jun Maerkl – Naxos 8.572805, 62:40 ****:
Pianist and composer Eugen D’Albert (1864-1932) enjoyed a strong international career in music, and even Franz Liszt referred to him as “Albertus Magnus.” D’Albert composed twenty-one operas, of which Tiefland (The Lowland) remains nominally the most famous, based on a story Angel Guimera and a libretto by Rudolph Lothar. The relatively bucolic setting in the Pyrenees Mountains involves a romantic triangle whose melodramatic evolution reminds us of the Italian verismo of Cavalleria rusticana. The Symphonic Prologue (1924) takes a page from Tristan and depicts a shepherd’s pipe (via clarinet) that addresses snow-capped peaks and starry sky, while a persistent inverted pedal point and dark low strings suggest latent tragedy. The MDR Leipzig forces prove resonant in all parts, from swirling strings and harp to the liquid woodwinds and fervent brass that wend their way through mountain tops.
D’Albert’s only symphony (1886) may reveal debts to Brahms, but the ambitious, fifty-minute work of a twenty-year-old, while occasionally hinting at Brahms, Dvorak, or Wagner, rarely makes a strong melodic impression. Several times, the music assumes a thick dignity and imperious grandeur that suggest Elgar in a forth-right mood of masculine assertiveness. The various applications of orchestral colors remain impressive, with touches in the first movement from the bassoon and other gurgling winds over suspended strings. We might recall that, despite D’Albert’s decidedly Teutonic leanings, his youthful nurture in Glasgow may have tinted much of innate musical perception. A French horn proposes a mountain tune of some girth as we make our way to the recapitulation of the first movement. An ungainly fugato moves us to the coda, another strong intimation of D’Albert’s hybrid style of German and British earnestness.
The slow movement, marked in German – as are all the movements – Langsam, aber nicht schleppend – presents only pleasant, conservative harmonies in rich orchestration, but they rarely make any emotional impact. D’Albert is a case of a master of atmosphere, but that emotional milieu proves vapid, background, a kind of anticipation for scenic film music. Perhaps we might compare it to dull meandering Bruckner. A contrapuntal Scherzo exhibits deft orchestration, a cross of Schumann and Mendelssohn in bucolic spirits. A nice part for the flute and busy strings, however, does not profundity create. The languorous Trio part floats along beyond its welcome. The last movement begins by promising events of substance, but the music runs a course of predictable harmonies and outcomes. Jun Maerkl recorded these scores 24-28 January 2011 with Germany’s oldest radio orchestra, a fine ensemble here devoted – and captured in sterling sound – to advocating for a composer who will likely remain marginal among the symphonic titans.