Notes and Editorial Reviews
Serenade in d.
Overture (Notturno) in B?,
Serenade in B?
MDG 3010416 (53:17)
The oddity here is Mendelssohn’s Notturno. That was the original title of the piece, and B?-Major was its original key. Today, it’s better known as the Overture in C Major. The 15-year-old composer drafted the
score while on vacation with his father in Bad Doberan in 1824, completing a fair copy of it in 1827. The work was scored for the modest forces of the village wind band (
) Mendelssohn encountered in the vacation resort town. Sometime between then and 1838, Mendelssohn reworked the piece in C Major and made huge changes to its instrumentation, orchestrating it for full military band. He then submitted it to his publisher, Simrock, as the retitled Overture, and suggested that it be designated op. 24, since that opus number had been skipped over and was available.
Consortium Classicum, the highly regarded wind ensemble, performs the piece on this recording in its original version, which is not only in a different key, but features a prominent trumpet part and a part for an instrument Mendelssohn referred to as a bass English horn. Of course, there was, and is, no such thing, but Mendelssohn drew a picture of what he saw and heard in the village band he was writing for, and what he sketched resembled a member of the old serpent family, a low bass wind instrument that was probably an ancestor of the tuba. Since Consortium Classicum is a modern-instrument ensemble, it has not resurrected the serpent; its part is taken by a double bass.
Just for grins, I decided to compare Mendelssohn’s original instrumentation of the piece, presented here by Consortium Classicum, to the composer’s reworked version submitted for publication. The differences are startling. The original Notturno was scored for a total of 11 instruments: flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, two bassoons, trumpet, and the serpent thing Mendelssohn called a bass English horn. The revised Overture for full military band was scored for a total of 27 instruments: piccolo, flute, two clarinets in F, two clarinets in C, two oboes, two basset horns, two bassoons, two contrabassoons, corno basso (a low horn in B? transposing down a ninth), two horns in C, two horns in F, trumpet in C, three trombones (alto, tenor, and bass), tambourine, triangle, bass drum, and cymbals. What a nightmare writing for all those transposing instruments! Maybe that’s why Mendelssohn changed the key to C, figuring he’d write the full score out at sounding pitch and then let Simrock’s copyists worry about correctly transposing the individual parts. That’s what I would have done, but then you can probably guess what my middle initial, “L,” stands for.
Luckily, an orchestral version of the piece exists for a more standard complement of wind, brass, and percussion instruments without strings as well as an edition for piano four-hands. But should curiosity get the better of you, you can listen to the United States Marine Band, conducted by Michael J. Colburn, give the piece the full military treatment and then some on YouTube.
Dvo?ák wrote two serenades, one in E Major for strings in 1875, and the one on the current disc, more or less for winds, in D Minor in 1878. As serenades go, the earlier string opus may just be the most beautiful work of its type ever written and it’s justly popular, with more than 50 recordings to prove it. The wind work, on the other hand, is not quite as beloved, though with approximately 30 recordings, it’s not exactly the class nerd, either. But it has other issues. First, it’s not scored as a pure wind serenade
the closely contemporary 1881 Serenade in E? by Richard Strauss. It was in the beginning, but Dvo?ák later decided to add cello and double bass parts to reinforce the bass line.
Second, the work doesn’t follow very closely the formal prescription for a serenade, which, at one time, was understood to consist of up to 10 movements and to have an arch-like structure with mirroring minuets, a classic example being Mozart’s “Gran Partita” Serenade. Of course, Brahms’s two serenades deviate from earlier models as well, though they have six and five movements respectively, where Dvo?ák’s has only four. Still, given that the aforementioned Strauss serenade is in one long extended movement, it’s probably fair to say that by the mid 19th century the musical term “serenade” had become disconnected from any formal considerations and was now defined primarily by the character of its musical content.
If that character is amiable, easygoing, rustic, and generally of a sunny disposition, and the symphony, tone poem, or overture shoe doesn’t quite fit, call it a serenade. And that description surely fits Dvo?ák’s warm and friendly, occasionally moody but mostly happy, affectionately portrayed Bohemian peasants.
It seems there are more 19th- and early 20th-century serenades in heaven and earth than even I dreamed of. Those by Brahms, Dvo?ák, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Elgar, and Wolf are widely known, while those by Joseph Suk, Max Reger, Sibelius, Stenhammar, Dag Wirén, and Wilhelm Berger (see review of Berger and Naumann string trios) may not be quite as familiar. But I have to admit that the Serenade in B?-Major by Emil Hartmann (1836–1898) was brand new to me, though I was a bit embarrassed to find two other recordings of it listed in addition to this new one, and that one of them, a performance on Claves led by Christian Siegemann, was voted into
Hall of Fame by Michael Carter in 28:3. It’s a small world, because that recording also included the serenade by Wilhelm Berger, another little-known composer whose string trio I happen to review elsewhere in this issue. Anyway, the Hartmann name is a common one among composers; this Hartmann, given on the current album as Wilhelm Emilius Hartmann but listed by ArkivMusic as Emil, should not be confused with Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann (1805–1900), an earlier member (though he outlived Emil) of this extended Danish musical clan.
Hartmann’s Serenade, also for winds, differs in instrumentation from Dvo?ák’s mainly in its inclusion of a flute and its use of a single oboe instead of a pair. Both compositions are otherwise scored for the same basic complement of instruments, with the exception as noted of the addition of a cello and a double bass by Dvo?ák, along with an optional part for contrabassoon. Hartmann also employs a double bass to reinforce the bass line, but no cello and no contrabassoon, optional or otherwise. The presence of a flute in Hartmann’s scoring brightens the sound and makes for a better ensemble balance, I think, than Dvo?ák’s fluteless score does, especially with its cello and contrabassoon, if the latter is used, which further thickens the texture and skews the sound downward.
Composed sometime in the 1880s, Hartmann’s work, like Dvo?ák’s, is in four movements and of a similar engaging, insouciant character, though without the Bohemian accent. It’s quite a lovely piece, and I’m tempted to say that if with greater exposure it became better known it might eclipse the Dvo?ák in popularity.
All three works on this disc are meat and potatoes for the Consortium Classicum, one of the very best ensembles of its kind specializing primarily in music for winds. It should be noted, however, that the CD under review is not new; it was recorded in 1991–92, and though it shows a release date of August 2011 on all the major mail-order websites, I have a hard time believing that MDG sat on it for almost 20 years. My gut instinct tells me that it has seen an earlier release, perhaps even appearing originally on LP. No matter; at least of the Dvo?ák, the only work with which I was previously familiar, I can honestly say I’ve not heard it performed any better. Add to that the original version of Mendelssohn’s Overture (Notturno), which I’m not sure you will hear elsewhere, and the beautiful, little-known serenade by Emil Hartmann, and this disc, new or old, deserves a strong recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Overture for Wind Instruments in B flat major "Notturno" [early version of Op. 24] by Felix Mendelssohn
Serenade for Winds in B flat major, Op. 43 by Emil Hartmann
Serenade for Winds in D minor, Op. 44 by Antonín Dvorák
Written: 1878; Bohemia
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