The music of Karl Hoeller proves devotional and ecstatic in a highly individual but dark style. 

KARL HOELLER: Music for Violin, Cello and Organ = Fantasie for Violin and Organ, Op. 49; Triptychon for Organ solo, Op. 64; Improvisationen for Cello and Organ, Op. 55 – William Preucil, v./ Roy Christensen, cello/ Barbara Harbach, organ – MSR Classics MS 1445, 70:55 (9/29/16) [Distr. by Albany] ****:

During a phone interview with pianist Veronika Jochum, daughter of eminent conductor Eugen Jochum, the name of composer Karl Hoeller (1907- 1987) arose, in the course of a radio tribute to Eugen Jochum which featured one of Hoeller’s orchestral compositions.  Given Hoeller’s penchant for polyphony, tonal colors, and classical procedures, a comparison to Paul Hindemith seemed inevitable; but Ms. Jochum and I agree that Hoeller’s style feels distinctly less “academic” than that of Hindemith.  The three works presented here derive from the years 1949-1963. Violinist William Preucil served as concertmaster in Atlanta and in Cleveland, before assuming the first violin position with the Cleveland String Quartet. The Fantasie (1949) opens with a solo violin cadenza before the organ joins him in some “symphonic” harmonization. The writing for both instruments, whether in concert or individually can become quite rhapsodic. The muted organ episodes introduce an aura of mystery and pietism into the work, not far from the somber chorales of Cesar Franck and their idiosyncratic chromaticism. If the organ harmonies prove modal and askew, the violin often maintains a piercing lyricism whose ardent and passionate arioso remands me of Frank Martin. Mid-way, the organ breaks off into a toccata riff quite indebted to Bach, with the violin’s assuming a more angular melodic line. A plaintive series of riffs absorbs the violin over a weaving bass line in the organ; then the organ picks up the violin tune and adds long-held chords that crescendo as Harbach applies the swell manual. What then follows seems a kind of moody, resigned epilogue that eventually fades away in haunted tones.

Victimae paschali laudes (1570) is a sequence prescribed for the Roman Catholic Mass and liturgical Protestant Eucharists of Easter Sunday.  Hoeller made his three-part Trypticon for solo organ around 1962-1963. Given Hoeller’s long experience with the instrument – particularly in Frankfurt and Bamberg – the writing proves virtuosic and effective, often in agitated and convulsive gestures. The opening “Improvisation: Amen” exploits the full diapason of the M.P. Moeller Organ of the First Church of Christ Scientist in Buffalo, New York. Mid-way, a heavy bass tone moves under a piccolo choir. The harmonies blur, and the effect reminds me of the background score for the Ian McKellen/Judy Dench version of Macbeth. A high-pipe flourish concludes the “Amen.” The setting for the middle movement, “Die nobis, Maria,” is an expansive  ricercare at first set in contrary motion. Soon, the music expresses a highly chromatic sense of exaltation, befitting the tone of the sacred motet. We wonder how much of the influence of Max Reger permeates this approach, especially in the grand crescendos. The music becomes distinctly fugal in texture, but Hoeller’s score does not dance. Rather, it frets and grumbles in increasing histrionics, insistent. In what appears an extended coda, the music achieves a sense of intimate quietude, still dark, but resigned to piety. The last movement Hoeller marks “Postludium ‘Amen, Alleluja.’” Huge block chords and scalar patterns invoke a severe sense of the transcendent, the rhythmic motion close to Poulenc but without the feeling of liberation. Organist Harbach herself enjoys a career that embraces composition, editing, performing, and publishing.

The five Improvisations (1950) for Cello and Organ are each marked in German, much in the manner of late Beethoven and Hindemith. They each refer to the spiritual folksong, “Schoenster Herr Jesus,” sometimes noted apocryphally as the Crusaders’ Hymn, but its first real appearance occurs in Liszt’s Legend of Saint Elizabeth.  The first movement sings in a way the prior pieces only managed sporadically.  Cellist Christensen has an ostinato pizzicato for the second movement, in which the organ realizes a pseudo-jazzy rhythm. The third movement, Gesangvoll fliessend, soars, and the organ contributes its own meditative song. The fourth movement, relatively brief, suggests a scherzo, and employs pungent entries from Christensen’s instrument. The fifth movement, the longest, reverts to the highly chromatic lines Hoeller favors his meditative organ works, gloomy and somber. The cello part, however, seems a combination of Schumann fused with aspects of Debussy, Faure, Reger, and late Romanticism generally. As fits the designation, In ruhiger, the music achieves a grudging peace of mind and spirit. No credit identifies Christensen’s instrument, but it sports a lovely, burnished tone, as some may recall when he served as principal cellist both in Atlanta and Cincinnati.

—Gary Lemco