If it weren't a really bad pun, I'd say that the music of Pepping is peppy. Oops, I guess I just did say it. And it's mostly true, although a better adjective would be 'sunny.' There's something strangely endearing about the music of Ernst Pepping (1901-1981): although he was much younger than Mahler, and never knew him or studied with him, his music uses many of Mahler's gestures, at least in many passages, but it doesn't have the neurotic intensity of Mahler's in spite of the similar hyperchromaticism and dense polyphony. I find that refreshing. Make no mistake, I don't think his music has the greatness of Mahler's but it is neatly made, always interesting and displays mastery of melody, rhythm, harmony and counterpoint. There is, I suppose, a somewhat didactic quality to the music -- witness the classic forms, the use of fugal passages and the like -- but underneath one always detects a heart. Other influences: Nielsen's intentional gaucherie (those wide-interval slow tremolos, for instance), Bruckner's brass chorales.
To the degree that Pepping is known to the larger world, it is as a composer of sacred music -- although I have to confess I don't know any of it. Indeed this is the first music of Pepping's that I've ever heard. He was somewhat avant garde early on, and concentrated on sacred music afterwards, but for a period during and after the Second World War he concentrated on orchestral music. The three symphonies were written in a period of five years (1939, 1942, 1944) and are of a piece. The writer of the booklet notes attempts to make distinctions between the symphonies, but to my ears they are quite similar, not to mention consistently charming, heart-warming and utterly enjoyable. The First is probably the best-humored of the three, and the Second has more minor key passages with some tragic overtones, but frankly this is always leavened by perky, even nonchalant passages that chase away any melancholy or somber mood. The Third is subtitled 'Die Tageszeiten' ('The Times of Day') and its four movements are entitled 'Morning', 'Day', 'Evening' and 'Night.' These are not really narrative pieces, although there is some 'dawn-chorus' in the first movement, but rather a painting of a general mood. The booklet writer points out that Pepping used the main 'Morning' theme in inversion for 'Night.' Clever and well-done, but not particularly noticeable, at least at first hearing. The second movement is a broadly constructed and hugely satisfying passacaglia.
The Piano Concerto, written in 1950, is quite another thing entirely. In the usual three movements, it is much more interesting rhythmically, even using lots of jazz rhythms and occasional blue harmonies. There is notable lyrical writing for the solo trumpet (shades of Gershwin's concerto!) in the second movement. The finale certainly deserves the description 'peppy' and it is exhilarating, reminiscent of the French insouciance of Les Six. It is a display piece for the pianist, in the Romantic tradition but with modestly modern touches, and the performance by pianist Volker Banfield is all one could ask.
With the minor exception, in the second symphony, of some awkward ensemble, the Northwest German Radio Symphony, under Werner Andreas Albert, play with conviction and suavity. Andreas and cpo have brought us some extraordinary recordings in the last few years -- music of Benjamin Frankel and Hans Pfitzner come to mind -- and he and cpo are to be lauded for this.
I had never heard a note of Pepping's music before, but this two-CD set made me hungry for more of his orchestral or instrumental music.