At first hearing these two symphonies by Swiss composer Robert Hermann struck me as pretty unremarkable: the orchestration is effective without displaying much interest in novel effects or colour for colour's sake, even though it includes instruments such as the harp and (in the second symphony) the tam-tam; the harmony is also generally conventional and eschews the tonality-stretching chromaticism that one might expect to find in Late Romantic orchestral works; structurally too, tried and tested forms are used - in all respects there is a conservative cast to this music that almost makes you feel as though Wagner and Liszt had never existed. Yet there is something here that draws me back, a hard-to-define individuality or quirkiness of personality that has ultimately made these two works - for me at least - more than the sum of their parts.
With their use of see-sawing, ostinato-like rhythmic patterns and thematic figures, their woodwind trills and horn-calls, both works evince a bucolic atmosphere but the sombre hue of much of the string writing and the expressive seriousness of Hermann's contrapuntal textures results in a soundscape that is by no means a simplistic or idealistic Arcadian vision. Indeed, the lengthy central movement of the first symphony opens and closes with eloquently-expressed music of tragic import; the corresponding movement in the second symphony doesn't attempt to plumb quite such emotional depths but Hermann's polyphonic development of his material still lends it a striking seriousness of utterance, one intimated by its sombre opening bars. In contrast to his earlier three-movement first symphony, Hermann introduces an 'Allegretto' between the slow movement and finale in the second symphony: it opens in a rather archaic sounding manner but a chiming motif soon appears and is repeated to haunting effect as it recurs in various instrumental guises throughout the remainder of the proceedings. In the finale itself the minatory background presence that has cast shadows over so many passages during both symphonies finally becomes manifest and Hermann concludes his symphony with music of driving force, underpinned by the brass in their lower registers; it ends with - for once - a feeling of unequivocal defeat. Its worth mentioning in passing that there seemed to me to be some echoes of Tchaikovsky's 'Francesca da Rimini' in this movement but refreshingly the influences on Hermann's music overall are less obvious than you might expect find in a talented second-tier composer of this period.
Christopher Fifield directs fine performances from the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen, with a sensitive ear for the chiaroscuro moods of Hermann's compositional voice. Sometimes one wishes for fuller bloom and warmth in the strings - for example, at the start of the central section of the first symphony's 'Grave', where they sing out a broad, harp-accompanied melody - but judging by the remainder of the performances on the disc I'd hazard that this might simply be a case of not enough manpower in that section of the orchestra rather than any issue of interpretation or technique on the part of the artists. Sound quality is very good indeed.
I wouldn't claim that either work here is a rediscovered masterpiece or, indeed, that Hermann is strikingly original but there is an individuality to his modes of expression and a dignity to his music that I have found quite refreshing. These are works that I have returned to many times now since I bought the disc and I imagine I will continue to do so.