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Robert FUCHS (1847-1927)
Symphony No. 1 in C, Op. 37 (1884) [32:07]
Symphony No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 45 (1887) [37:40]
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Karl-Heinz Steffens
rec. Philharmonie, Köln, June 2011
CPO 777 830-2 [69:59]

Music history has made much of the great divide in the nineteenth century between the followers of Brahms, who favoured Classical structures and traditional harmonies, and those of Wagner, who evolved a more ambiguous harmonic idiom in the course of forging new formal paths. All history, music history included, tends to generalize and oversimplify in the course of constructing a coherent narrative, and so it is in this particular case. Musicians at the time, occupied with their day-to-day work, didn't necessarily think of themselves as labouring within any such divide; some may not even have been aware that it existed!

Robert Fuchs, who taught at the Vienna Conservatory, composed symphonies and serenades, which would seem to put him in the Brahms camp. Brahms, however, was extremely conscious of a perceived obligation to follow in the innovative footsteps of Beethoven; Fuchs's music, frequently described at the time as "likable," shared no such larger ambitions. It most strongly reflects the influence of the earlier German Romantics - more than one turn of phrase brings Schumann to mind - with only the busier, denser textures to mark them as later works.

Thus, the First Symphony, of 1884, despite a few spare, forward-looking turns at the start, is resolutely conservative. The main theme is square, but dotted pickups bring some lift to the second theme. There's a neat structural touch when the simple, singing clarinet phrase of the exposition's codetta, taken over by the oboe, launches the development. On the other hand, the triumphal passages near the close are too similar texturally to what's preceded, undercutting the effect. The Intermezzo, despite its Presto marking, feels buoyant rather than rushed. The lighter, higher textures at the start of the third movement provide a welcome aural respite from all the busyness; the movement sings with dignity and restraint, maintaining a sense of lightness as the sonorities expand, and concludes fervently. The Finale, in which a lilting repeated-note pattern plays a major role, has a scurrying first theme, a playful second one, and a Schumannesque stretto coda.

The E-flat Symphony, from just three years later, is only five minutes longer - at least in this performance - but rather differently proportioned: its eighteen-minute first movement is more than half the length of the entire C major Symphony. I couldn't even fathom its structure at first, until I realized I was hearing the repeat of a long, involved exposition, in which the peremptory opening horn fanfare provides the rhythmic impulse for the second, more cushioned theme. Oddly, although this movement is in triple meter, it, like the corresponding movement of the C major, feels square. The intermezzo-like Andante is piquant, in a dancing, folk-type rhythm. The third movement, marked Menuetto, begins as a graceful, gently expressive menuet with liquid, delicate woodwind soli; moves into a contrasting, sprightly scherzando; then returns to the original material in a higher, more optimistic key. The chattering staccatos of the Finale's main subject provide forward impetus, and they remain in play through and around the more sustained material later on. Considering the broad scale of the opening movement, this one is surprisingly concise.

As my descriptions may suggest, the performances are excellent. Karl-Heinz Steffens has a fine feel for the music's colour and power, and shapes it eloquently: only the rhetorical setup of the C major's recap feels a bit stiff. The Cologne Radio forces contribute beautiful, characterful playing; the woodwinds are particularly expressive. The sound strikes an appealing balance between clarity and warmth; the climaxes have plenty of impact without becoming strident.

Stephen Francis Vasta

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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