Notes and Editorial Reviews
Yes, it's really that Schlemihl, the poor guy in Jewish folklore for whom nothing goes right. The composer describes the work's "orgy" sequence as follows: "A fat naked witch, with breasts and belly hanging down, arrives riding a sow to the tune 'Ach! Du Lieber Augustin'." Now who wouldn't want to hear that? The music actually sounds a bit like the waltz from the second movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with lots more percussion thrown in (in fact it was composed a couple of years after Mahler's death). The work's subtitle, "A Symphony Life Story", doesn't really begin to describe it, for the piece is a gigantic parody, principally of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben and Sinfonia Domestica. As with those works it has
sections that describe the title character's wife, his child, and his various tribulations, but it's at once less specific than Strauss and if anything even more colorful.
Take the opening, a very funny Wagner/Strauss parody that represents the "hero". All of the clichés are firmly in place: the simple triadic melodies, bold writing for brass, and repeated wind chords. There's only one problem--the music can't make up its mind what key it's in. However, the composer's message couldn't be clearer, and while there's much that's quite beautiful (the music of "the woman" and the entire last few minutes), the overriding impression remains one of good-natured fun. There's even a brief tenor solo toward the end that basically says "Your life hasn't been a total waste and you've earned a rest" (or words to that effect), plus some solemn writing for organ that hits an aptly religious note, but not too seriously. It's all gloriously played by the WDR Symphony Orchestra under Michail Jurowski and fabulously well recorded, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Reznicek apparently did for Raskolnikoff (of Crime and Punishment fame) what Beethoven did for Leonore. This is the second of two Raskolnikoff overtures that he wrote, and it dates from the 1920s (Reznicek was born in 1860, the same year as Mahler, and died in 1945). While not as interesting as Schlemihl (no surprise there), and despite the fact that it takes a while to get going, the piece is just as immaculately crafted and certainly as well performed here. The ending, with the birdsong from the slow movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony putting in a brief appearance, can't fail to please even if it leaves open the question of what any of it has to do with Dostoyevsky. Never mind; Reznicek is a major composer and one of the great discoveries of this (or any) year. CPO's ongoing series of recordings is turning into a major event. Just remember, you heard it here first. [3/5/2004]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Full review from FANFARE Magazine:
If you have felt that there are an insufficient number of Strauss tone poems, this disc is for you. Echoes of
Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote, and
Don Juan abound in the major work on this disc,
Schlemihl. Lest you think I’m being snide, let me make clear that I enjoyed it immensely, and have returned to listen to it on more than one occasion.
If you are familiar with Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek at all, it is probably through the
Donna Diana Overture, a work regularly played in our concert halls before the pervading grimness of post-World War II life seems to have resulted in a ban on lighthearted music from “serious” concerts. (Some will also know it as the theme song of the television series
Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and apparently in Germany it served a similar role on a German show called
Erkennen Sie die Melodie (“Name That Tune”)! Reznicek was a prolific composer, and I had already heard two symphonies, a serenade, and a violin concerto prior to receiving this disc. But I wasn’t prepared for the creative energy and consistent level of inspiration that I found here.
If you insist on originality, or every composer having a truly distinctive voice, this music is probably not for you. Given Reznicek’s dates (1860–1945), a virtual duplication of Richard Strauss’s (1864–1949), it isn’t surprising that the two sound alike. Clearly, Strauss was the one touched by genius, Reznicek only by strong talent. But strong talent is nothing to sneer at, and there is plenty of it on display here.
Schlemihl is one of Reznicek’s major works—a 45-minute symphonic poem intended as the composer’s response to many horrible turns of fate in his own life (the death of two children and his first wife chief among them).
Schlemihl was inspired by its Yiddish derivation (though Reznicek was not Jewish), a luckless individual for whom things never go right. One suspects that Reznicek missed the subtlety that the
schlemihl is often responsible for his own bad luck—as opposed to the
schlemazl. Typical Yiddish humor identifies a
schlemihl as someone who is likely to spill the soup from the bowl—and the schlemazl as the person on whom it will be spilled! What we have here is the musical opposite of Strauss’s
Ein Heldenleben —a kind of anti-hero’s life, sometimes depicted with great musical specificity. There is a lovely moment of comfort near the end of the work, in the form of a tenor solo, set to a text of Goethe. It may sound “over the top” in my description, but it is not. It is a captivating, engrossing work that repays re-hearings, and if it isn’t a masterpiece on the level of
Heldenleben, neither is it a work that deserves total obscurity. Reznicek’s remarkably colorful orchestration alone deserves to be heard by all lovers of musical romanticism. Bravo to cpo for recording it—and particularly in such a persuasive performance by Michail Jurowski and the Radio Orchestra from Cologne, which plays its heart out. The brief tenor solo is very appealingly sung by Nobuaki Yamamasu, and the recorded sound is colorful, detailed, and warm—one of cpo’s best efforts.
Raskolnikoff is a fairly long (22 minutes) fantasy overture, written later in Reznicek’s career (
Schlemihl dates from 1912,
Raskolnikoff from 1929). It is a less extravagantly scored, but perhaps even more deeply felt work, based on
Crime and Punishment. Again, there are echoes of Strauss and others (Tchaikovsky, Wagner), but the music holds our interest because of the sincerity of its content, though it does bog down in its central sections with perhaps too much seriousness.
Cpo’s booklet provides notes that are very informative but a bit dense, and seem to me to be translated a bit awkwardly. The result is that you can’t skim them—you must read them thoroughly. It is worth doing so, however, because of the detailed analyses of both pieces. One also notes that Michail Jurowski’s conducting is so good that he doesn’t deserve the misspelling of his name on the first inside page of the booklet. To anyone interested in going beyond the standard romantic orchestral repertoire, I can recommend this disc with enthusiasm.
Henry Fogel, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Schlemihl by E. Nikolaus von Reznicek
Nobuaki Yamamasu (Tenor)
Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1911-1912; Prague, Czech Republ
Raskolnikoff by E. Nikolaus von Reznicek
Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1925; Prague, Czech Republ
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