Johann von HERBECK (1831-1877)
Symphony No. 4 in D minor ‘Organ’ (1877) [25:01]
Symphonic Variations in F major (1875) [36:35]
Irénée Peyrot (organ)
Hamburg Symphony Orchestra/Martin Haselböck
rec. 2005, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg
Reviewed as 16-bit lossless download from

A mass by Herbeck was recently reviewed here, and now we have two substantial orchestral works. It isn’t, however, a case of “nothing for ages, then two buses at the same time” as this recording was released in 2006. Other than one short Christmas-related choral work (Pueri concinite), that appears to be the extent of the available works by this composer.

Johan Ritter von Herbeck was born in Vienna of Bohemian parents. Any musical inheritance came from his mother’s side: her father was an oboist in the Vienna court orchestra. Other than basic lessons in piano and composition as a teenager, he was self-taught, never attending a conservatorium as a student. Despite this, he gained a number of significant posts in the Viennese musical establishment, including musical director of the court opera.

It would take a very knowledgeable person to answer the question “Who composed the first Organ symphony?” correctly since the answer is not Camille Saint-Saëns, but rather Johann von Herbeck. Apparently, after completing the symphony, he said to his wife: “If this symphony does not gain success, I will compose no more.” If you look at the dates of his death and of the symphony’s composition, you will see the bitter irony in his words. Regardless of the work’s reception, he would indeed write no more.

Perhaps because he was self-taught, his style is rather varied, and kinship with better-known composers difficult to pin down. The most obvious influence in the symphony, at least in the outer movements, is Bruckner, whose early symphonies were championed by Herbeck. He was supposed to conduct the premiere of the Bruckner Third but his death intervened. In the first two movements, the organ is used sparingly, mainly there to add weight to the climaxes. It doesn’t appear in the scherzo, but leads off the finale solo, as well as contributing substantially to the maestoso element of the movement. One shouldn’t take the Bruckner connection too far; after all, the whole symphony is over in twenty-five minutes, which is not much more than the first movement of the Bruckner Third. The inner movements, particularly the scherzo, are a world away from Bruckner in their lightness; the booklet mentions Mendelssohn and Schumann, but it is Schubert who comes to mind for me.

Schubert is often described as never writing a true adagio; on the evidence presented here, Herbeck might be described as not writing a true allegro. Now, strictly speaking, that isn’t accurate, but bear with me. There are sixteen movements in these two works, five of which have the allegro label, but in each case it is tempered by either maestoso or moderato. The two allegros in the symphony form the opening sections of the final two movements. Semantics aside, it is fair to say that Herbeck’s comfort zone would seem to be andante and allegretto, for adagio is only used twice. This summarises the problem I have with these two works: a lack of variation, which is particularly ironic for a set of variations.

The Symphony does at least have a dynamic range, assisted by the presence of the organ. The same cannot be said for the Symphonic Variations, which chug along at andante-allegretto pace, give or take, for most of the time, and without much in the way of pianissimo or fortissimo. The theme itself is genial, but unmemorable. I don’t like being so negative, but I find little to be positive about.

Martin Haselböck and the Hamburg orchestra, along with the label, are to be congratulated for disinterring such rarities, and it's not their fault that the Variations, in particular, lack variety. The very useful booklet was not provided by eClassical, but was available from the label’s website.

David Barker

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