This is the fourth issue I've encountered, from the cpo label, of music of Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945). I've reviewed the first three -- the opera 'Donna Diana', the tone poem 'Schlemihl' and its successor 'Der Sieger', and found them very worthwhile -- and have come to feel that Reznicek has been an unduly neglected composer of the late German Romantic school. This issue, presumably part of an ongoing series, is of the Second and Fifth Symphonies.
The Symphony No. 2 in B Flat, a chamber orchestra work subtitled 'Ironic,' was written in the 1910s. It illustrates Reznicek's tendency to make jokes with his music. ('Schlemihl' and 'Der Sieger,' for instance, gently satirized the self-promotion of Richard Strauss.) This short work -- 25 minutes -- is filled with 'Eulenspiegelei' (roughly, 'tomfoolery') and yet is satisfying as music qua music. The first movement is extremely chromatic, modulating through, by my count, eleven of the possible twelve major keys. Sometimes the modulations come so fast and furiously that one is left chuckling; this is Reznicek's 'Musikalischer Spass.' Yet, it manages at the same time to be an expert variant of the sonata-allegro form. The scherzo, which comes second, has a dryly pastoral tone; one can hear Reznicek oh-so-slightly making fun of early Romantic gestures. The trio of the scherzo sounds almost Mahlerian. The third movement, marked 'Mit abegeklärter Ruhe' ('With transparent serenity') is a lovely homage to the slow movements of Mahler, including the slightly bizarre and very Mahlerian use of a piccolo and violin duet. The finale, a rondo, sounds Straussian with its side-slipping harmonies and almost verbatim 'Eulenspiegelei.'
Reznicek's last symphony, the No. 5, is subtitled 'Dance Symphony' and lest one think this means it is a light-hearted work, let me assure you that this is more Totentanz than tripping-the-light-fantastic. Indeed, some years after its première in 1924 (it was then called 'Four Symphonic Dances' but published two years later as Symphony No. 5, 'Dance Symphony') it was choreographed in expressionistic style reminiscent of German silent movies of the time; in Dresden the ballet was billed as 'The Marionettes of Death.' The four movements are Polonaise, Csárdas, Ländler and Tarantella. The characteristic rhythms of these four dances forms are retained, but the emotional content of the four movements are anything but merry. Not quite as chromatic as the earlier symphony, there is a preponderance of minor key harmonies. One imagines that Reznicek had a program in mind because all four movements are episodic, with frequent tempo and key changes suggesting a narrative subtext. The work abounds with memorable melodies -- although the use of a figure very similar to Fucik's 'Entrance of the Gladiators' (the familiar circus entrance march) is perhaps intentionally ironic. One also hears some echoes of Strauss again, especially that uprushing opening figure of 'Don Juan.' There are suitable Magyar-sounding phrases in the Csárdas; they are ironic or world-weary in a way that sounds a little like Prince Orlofsky in 'Fledermaus.' The Ländler is anything but happy peasant in tone; there is menace in it. The finale, Tarantella, is nothing short of a Dance of Death. One can hear bones rattling. This is a satisfying work, particularly if one accepts (as I do, as lovers of Mahler do) the juxtaposition of passages of transcendent beauty with those of bizarrerie.
The performances by the Bern Symphony are just a hair short of excellent. There are some passages of uncertain tuning (particularly in the winds) and some awkward transitions due I suspect to the leadership of conductor Frank Beermann, a conductor new to me. The sound is slightly clotted and in the Fifth Symphony particularly there is a tendency for the sound to be a bit bass-heavy. Still, we are not likely to get new recordings of these symphonies any time soon, and these certainly will suffice until we do.
I would not rank either of these symphonies as high in Reznicek's oeuvre as either 'Der Sieger' or 'Schlimihl' but they are worth hearing.