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Lou KOSTER (1889-1973)
Ouverture légère (1920s) [9:27]
Lore-Lore – Walzersuite, Op. 13 (1914) [7:59]
Heideland – Walzersuite (1920s) [7:53]
Suite dramatique (1920s) [8:20]
Unter blühenden Linden – Walzersuite (1920s) [10:57]
Moselträume – Walzersuite (1920s) [10:45]
Toute vie – Walzer (1920s) [6:13]
Orchestre Estro Armonico Luxembourg/Jonathan Kaell
rec. Conservatoire de Musique de Luxembourg, 2013. DDD
world première recordings
Booklet notes in English and German
NAXOS 8.573330 [61:34]

Any disc that comprises a collection of world premiere recordings by an unknown composer from the first half of the twentieth century is an intriguing prospect.

Lou Koster was born and died in Luxembourg; belonging to that extraordinary generation whose lives encompassed two World Wars, and everything from the first manned flight to landing on the moon. Will anyone ever live through such a tumultuous time again? I mention that purely because even by the conservative standards by which light music is usually judged Koster's works as offered here are remarkably - but charmingly - reactionary. Danielle Roster's concise but informative note makes it clear that dating these Koster scores - which are mainly unpublished - is very hard but they belong to an age firmly pre-World War I. More than that their spiritual home is clearly the Silver Age in Vienna. Although most of the works are dated as from the 1920s the main influences are Germanic Waltzes - as evidenced by the German titles.

Like many other jobbing musicians of this period, Koster worked as violinist, pianist, conductor and composer across a range of popular music genres from Palm-Court to silent movie to theatre. Again, Roster speculates that not unusually some of the works offered here are later orchestrations of earlier works - certainly that is how it sounds to my ear. Clearly composers of the stature of Lehár were still mining the rich vein of Viennese operetta well into the 1920s and beyond but I find it hard to believe that a practical performer such as Koster would not have allowed some musical influences from Britain and America permeate her work at all. There is never a hint of anything even faintly approaching syncopation - let alone jazz - here or even the variety of moods orchestral suites as popularised by the likes of Coates or Ketèlbey offered. The strikingly undramatic Suite dramatique offered here sounds more like a set of ballads albeit attractive ones. Not to say this does not have appeal. Koster has a good ear for unfussy but effective orchestration - she is happy to give the cellos more and better counter melodies than most Waltz composers ever do. Likewise, she is good at embellishing the repeats of waltz sections with more elaborate wind parts. Quite a surprise is the sudden use of the timps to double a moving bass line in Unter blühenden Linden, [track 7 3:53] or a solo piano in the opening of Moselträume. [track 8 0:21]. Then curiously the piano disappears into the orchestral mix simply to support the um-pah-pah rhythm of the work. Although these works are termed 'Walzersuite' they are no more than the standard sequence of several waltz melodies in contrasting keys and instrumentations as perfected by the Strauss family in nineteenth century Vienna. The liner-note makes a stout defence for the case that these are not "slavish imitations" of that genre which might well be true but the degree of indebtedness is not in doubt.

The function of much light music of this type was to provide a background to an event or gathering or in the case of the waltz pieces provide dance music. Roster says Koster's work was often broadcast on the radio through the 1930s right up until the 1960s and understandably so. This is far from exceptional music but it is of simple and instant appeal. It is easy to forget just how much light music was required - much of it performed live - to fill the voracious schedules of national broadcasters. In that context this is music that perfectly fulfils that function but even alongside the work of say Archibald Joyce - another composer famed for his waltzes - this seems like rather modest fare.

The recording and performances are of similar competent standard but being in no way exceptional. The orchestra is called Orchestre Estro Armonico Luxembourg. This is a chamber orchestra sized group comprising 45 musicians according to the liner although only 26 are pictured in the booklet. Certainly the string tone sounds smaller and thinner than the 8-10 players per violin section a 45 strength orchestra would imply. The playing from the whole orchestra is as reasonably good as one would expect a professional ensemble to be but there are some passing ensemble/intonation issues in the upper strings and more worrying is a lack of any real sparkle or zing. Much of the responsibility for this must lie with conductor Jonathan Kaell. He seems determined to play most of the waltzes in "strict time" - perfect for dancing to I am sure but depriving the music of most of its charm and sentiment. These are remarkably straight performances - and are lessened for so being. Given that Kaell seems to have devoted some time and no doubt considerable effort into the resurrection of these scores I find it odd that the he does not "love" the music more - these are readings almost wholly devoid of affection.

The recording is good except that it underlines the edginess of the string tone but overall the balances and orchestral perspectives are fine. This is not music that demands a wide dynamic range so perhaps it is unfair to expect a greater impact from the engineering than this type of music can generate.

A disc that is useful in filling in a small missing piece in the jigsaw of European light music before 1950 but lacking enough quality to demand attention from the unconverted.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Rob Barnett