ROBERT FUCHS: Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 9; Serenade No. 2 in C, Op. 14; Andante grazioso and Capriccio, Op. 63 – Cologne Chamber Orchestra /Christian Ludwig – Naxos 8.572222, 53:52 ****:
Austrian composer Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) is an all-but-forgotten name, but he was prized and influential in his own day, especially as composition teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, where he had earlier studied. He numbered among his pupils Enescu, Korngold, Mahler, Wolf, Zemlinsky, and of all people Sibelius, who was offered Fuchs’s job upon the older man’s retirement. (Sibelius declined.) Fuchs was an admired protégé of Brahms, who said of his music “Everything is so fine, so skilful, so charmingly invented that one always has pleasure in it.”
It’s telling that Fuchs’s contemporaries called him Serenaden-Fuchs in honor of his most popular compositions. Fuchs’s chief attribute is a Schubertian lyricism. Over the years, his idiom grew darker and more complex, but he never made a big noise in the music world as his mentor Brahms managed to do. Fuchs was not a self-promoter, and when supporters such as the conservative critic Eduard Hanslick fell silent and musical tastes changed, his works fell into obscurity.
This recording of the composer’s two serenades may not begin a Fuchs revival, but it will help to remind listeners of what earlier audiences found to like in his music. As with his mentor Brahms’s serenades, Fuchs’s First Serenade especially is a conscious throwback to the entertainment music of the eighteenth century, right down to the graceful Tempo di minuetto second movement. The following Allegro scherzando is not a stomping Beethovenian affair but a somewhat livelier dance that seems to carry on the spirit of the minuet that precedes it. As with Brahms’s First Serenade, the emotional heart of the work lies in the slow movement, marked Adagio – Con molto espressione. Some of the greater gravity of that movement spills over into the Allegro finale, which starts in the minor key, though the musical clouds burn away quickly enough as the work spins along to a dancing conclusion.
Fuchs responded to the resounding success of this 1874 work with a second serenade two years later. Loathe to mess with success, he doesn’t change the formula a great deal, though the differences prove to be a saving grace as far as programming is concerned; you can listen to the two serenades in succession without getting jaded (even if by the end of the disc you may decide you’ve had enough Viennese Gemütlichkeit for one sitting). Fuchs starts his Second Serenade with a folksy Allegretto, and the pesante bounciness of this movement recurs in the bubbling Presto finale. Again, deeper emotions are plumbed in the slow movement, which comes second in this serenade, shifting the emotional center of gravity closer to the beginning of the work. I’m not sure which of the serenades I favor; they’re equally charming and enjoyable in their different ways.
The Andante grazioso and Capriccio of 1900 is a pendant to the two serenades. You recognize the hand of Fuchs the Schubertian lyricist here, but the mood is darker, more reflective, the Viennese lilt now tinged with nostalgia and longing. You realize that you’re entering the musical world of Fuchs’s pupils Wolf and Mahler.
The strings of the Cologne Chamber Orchestra are just right for this music. The players render it lightly, without unneeded upholstering, and yet with the proper amount of downy cushioning in the lush, swooping gestures of the Capriccio. Naxos’s recording is equally successful, balancing pointed detail against a richly atmospheric resonance. All in all, a very attractive introduction to the work of a forgotten master.
— Lee Passarella