on 11 April 2014
Eugen D'Albert (1864-1932) was a colourful figure (he married six times) who, as well as being a virtuoso pianist, was also a composer, especially of operas...he wrote no fewer than twenty. "Tiefland" and, in particular, "Die Toten Augen" are well worth getting to know. Towards the beginning of his career D'Albert also produced a number of concert works including two piano concertos, the second of which is a tremendous Lisztian showpiece, and a fine Brahmsian symphony.
If you listen right through this disc you will be immediately struck by the enormous variety of styles on display. D'Albert, it seems, was an eclectic composer who never really settled on a style of his own. Some of his later works show the influence of German Expressionism and his opera "The Black Orchid" is said to include elements of jazz. No doubt, if he had established himself as a great innovative composer in the early part of his career (as Stravinsky did), he could have got away with jumping on so many bandwagons but, having failed to do so, he must have too often seemed like a slave to fashion. Yet D'Albert was capable of writing fine music in whatever style he chose.
Chronologically, the first work is the overture to Grillparzer's "Esther". This work has an abundance of themes and is very much in the manner of Brahms (though D'Albert does manage a couple of cymbal clashes towards the end). It is a sonata form piece with an extended introduction and a coda and is well sustained and effective though, like so much music of this type, it needs a little perseverance on the part of the listener. It may help to know that the development section begins at 6 mins 13 secs and the recapitulation at 7 mins 26 secs.
Next comes the overture to D'Albert's first opera "Der Rubin" ("The Ruby"). Now, Wagner's Influence, "Parsifal" in particular, looms large. You will spot this at once in the opening line and its instrumentation. Later the tempo picks up and D'Albert contrasts the scherzando writing with simultaneous lyrical lines in the strings...music which finds its origin in the finale of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. A lingering suspension in the horns brings the overture to a close.
The Prelude to Act 2 of D'Albert's opera "Gernot" (1897) is an exuberant Wagnerian (or, in places, Straussian) orgy of sound. There is a contrasting lyrical idea for the oboe (and later the strings) in the central section but the restless mood is always maintained.
"Das Seejungfraulein" ("The Little Mermaid") also dates from 1897. It was written for D'Albert's third wife, the singer Hermine Finck, and is a setting of words by James Grun. It is, of course, derived from the story by Hans Andersen. The music is again Wagnerian. Indeed, its thematic ideas, many of which are heard in the orchestral introduction, are not dissimilar to those in the overture to "Der Rubin". "Das Seejungfraulein" is a fine piece, building to an expansive climax as the little mermaid, having failed to win the love of a mortal, contemplates her release at the gates of heaven.
The overture to D'Albert's fourth opera "Die Abreise" ("The Farewell") could hardly be more different. This dates from 1898. It is a delightful, tuneful piece not far removed from the world of musical comedy. "Die Abreise" is one of only four of D'Albert's operas to have received a complete recording and, having heard this overture, you will know why.
Another opera which has been recorded complete is "Die Toten Augen". This dates from 1916. The prelude is included on this disc and it is, by some way, the most original music here. Having heard it, you will want to get to know the whole opera (there is an excellent recording on CPO) and you won't be disappointed. It is absolutely indelible melodically and, as a fellow reviewer wrote, it "lingers in the memory". The prelude provides an irresistible taster.
The work which receives top billing on this disc is the orchestral suite "Aschenputtel" ("Cinderella"). This dates from much later (1924) and consists of five movements which together only last for 15 1/2 minutes. Now the influences are Gallic. There is an Impressionistic flavour at times and the Ravel of "Ma Mere L'Oye" is also not far away. I was a little disappointed by this work. It is colourfully orchestrated but just too insubstantial to warrant frequent hearings.
All this music is very well played although the overture to "Die Abreise" would have benefited from a lighter touch. The recording is a little too constricted for the more opulent music but this does not prevent me from giving this disc a firm recommendation.