Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonatas: Nos. 1–3. Fantasy
Christian Altenburger (vn,
va); Oliver Triendl (pn)
CPO 777428 (2 CDs: 100:40)
Here is the usual riff on Heinrich von Herzogenberg: He was a Brahms sycophant and emulator of Brahms’s style whose own works bear little to no stamp of originality, a man who studied Brahms’s musical profile to the point that he became one of the
composer’s most practiced imitators. But to typecast Herzogenberg in the role of mere toady to his more famous contemporary is to ignore the fact that he did pursue an independent career and a life of his own.
This is offered as fair warning against typecasting, for the three violin sonatas in this set, written over a period of 10 years between 1882 and 1892, are apt to shatter preconceived notions and expectations. The first two of these works do
sound like attempts to imitate Brahms. In fact, one hears in this music a certain Nordic tone. A bit of Svendsen or Grieg, perhaps? Not so far-fetched when you consider that Grieg and Herzogenberg were good friends, that Grieg was hosted by Herzogenberg and his wife in their home, and that a good deal of correspondence exists between the two men and between their respective wives.
While Herzogenberg was no doubt familiar with Brahms’s G-Major Violin Sonata of 1878 when he set out to compose his own A-Major Sonata in 1882, he was almost surely familiar as well with Grieg’s first two essays in the form from 1865 and 1867. The moods and colors in Herzogenberg’s sonatas are not as dark, brooding, or nostalgia-tinged as they are in his more overtly Brahms-leaning works, while melody, harmony, and rhythm all take on an easygoing, almost folksy character. Note author Eckhardt van den Hoogen uses the word “folkloristic.”
Herzogenberg’s third and final sonata of 1892, in the same key of D Minor as Brahms’s third and final violin sonata of 1887, now seems to be making a conscious effort to seize upon the similar tumult and angst that inform the elder composer’s score. But where Brahms can sound genuinely foreboding, echoing the doomed voyage of the damned in the finale of the Fourth Symphony from two years earlier, Herzogenberg’s distress sounds forced and fake. The mood doesn’t suit him.
Having encountered van den Hoogen’s Alice-in-Wonderland program notes before, all I can say is good luck deciphering them. In describing Herzogenberg’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano, he tells us that “the stormy lad hastily borrowed a wild steed from the Leipzig stables of the young Schumann in order to speed along his opus 15.” Presumed translation: Herzogenberg (“the stormy lad”) borrowed a tune (“wild steed”) from a work (“stables”) by Schumann. Which “steed” and from what “stable” we’re left to guess. Its opus number suggests it’s the earliest piece in this set. Unfortunately, no date is given, but based on adjacent entries in Herzogenberg’s work catalog I’m guessing he wrote the Fantasy around 1875. The piece seems to be styled along the lines of Schumann’s 1853 Fantasy for Violin and Piano, op. 131.
This two-disc set is cpo’s latest release in its ongoing Herzogenberg survey, and with it we now encounter a duplication. Back in 2001, in
24:4, both Martin Anderson and William Zagorski reviewed cpo 999710, which contained a performance of
in a version for cello and piano. Herzogenberg wrote the piece in 1888, originally for viola, with a dedication to Joseph Joachim. It’s a beautifully luminescent work that, like the earlier Fantasy, is more reminiscent of Schumann than imitative of Brahms. Here it’s played in its original form on viola.
Pianist Oliver Triendl is a cpo veteran who will be familiar to those who have collected the label’s wonderful recordings of works by lesser-known late-Romantic German composers. Violinist Christian Altenburger, on the other hand, may not enjoy equal name recognition, for his recordings, though by no means few, are either no longer in circulation or generally not distributed in the U.S. A student of Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard, Altenburger was born in 1957, so he’s been around for quite some time. In fact, the name rang a bell and led me to a 1982 Pro Arte open-reel tape I have of Altenburger performing two of Mozart’s violin concertos with the German Bach Soloists led by Helmut Winschermann. The current cpo recordings were made in 2008 and 2009, and Altenburger gives every evidence of still being in his prime.
Having now reviewed and collected a number of Herzogenberg CDs, frankly, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get too excited about his music. He was a proficient composer whose musical vocabulary and expressive range, when it wasn’t leaning heavily toward Brahms, veered toward Schumann, with an occasional excursion to the northlands of Grieg. The novelty has worn off. No matter; these pieces make welcome additions to the violin-piano repertoire, and they’re expertly played by Altenburger and Triendl in excellent recordings by cpo. Recommended to those looking to expand their collections beyond the standard fare.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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