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Heinrich von HERZOGENBERG (1843-1900)
Piano Trio No 1 in C minor, Op.24 [35:17]
Piano Trio No 2 in D minor, Op.36 [30:21]
Vienna Piano Trio
rec. 2016, Konzerthaus der Abtei, Marienmünster, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.
MDG 9422017-6 SACD [65:38]

Being very fond of the music of Brahms and his school, I am always keen to hear compositions by his followers and I have listened to a large number of works by composers such as Jenner, Fuchs, Tovey and Pfitzner. All of these manage to inhabit the sound world of the master quite convincingly. Unfortunately, despite one or two exceptions, they also seem to lack Brahms’ gifts of melody, architecture, light and shade and knowing when to stop. Spotting the name of Herzogenberg, another Brahms acolyte, in the list of discs requiring review I was pleased to offer my services in the hope that I might find some works genuinely worth resurrecting or, better still, some works of real originality.

Heinrich von Herzogenberg came from the generation just after Brahms - being born in 1843 in Graz, Austria’s second-biggest city. His academic orientation was initially towards law and philosophy, which he briefly studied at the University of Vienna, but he abandoned these subjects in 1862 in favour of composition, in which he took classes at the Vienna Conservatory for two years. It was at the house of his composition teacher, Felix Dessoff, that Herzogenberg first came across Brahms. He was to marry Elizabet von Stockhausen, who had been a piano pupil of Brahms, in 1866. This was a move which seems to have irritated the older man, who was fond of her, and it may have been responsible for Brahms only expressing any approval of Herzogenberg’s music towards the end of his life. Nevertheless, the two composers became life-long friends and corresponded a great deal. Initially, Herzogenberg’s compositions were heavily influenced by Wagner but, after moving to Leipzig in 1872, he formed another enduring friendship, with the Bach biographer Philipp Spitta, and brought his own composing more into line with the heritage of the classical tradition – eventually renouncing the music of Liszt and Wagner in favour of that of Brahms. Herzogenberg dedicated several of his compositions to Brahms (three string quartets, Op.42, and a Piano Quartet, Op.95) and it is probably no coincidence that these were chamber works – a genre in which Brahms excelled – and which became a major feature of Herzogenberg’s output. With Spitta, Herzogenberg was co-founder of the Leipzig Bach-Verein and he was its artistic director for ten years (with Ethel Smyth amongst his composition pupils). In 1885 he moved to Berlin to become Professor of Composition at the Hochschule für Musik. He died in Wiesbaden in 1900, aged only 57 and his music fell quickly into neglect until the beginnings of a revival in the last few years.

Herzogenberg’s First Piano Trio, Op. 24, appearing in 1876 and published in 1877, was actually his third contribution to the genre – he regarded his first two efforts as merely “the shedding of an old musical skin”. There are four movements, of which the opening one is marked Allegro. From the start, which opens promisingly with a low cello melody, the work sounds very Brahmsian, with traces of Schumann. That said, in spite of several playings, I feel that the three main themes of the movement are not particularly memorable and the structure (ostensibly a sonata-form) is not very evident – although it all builds to a satisfying conclusion. A modestly varied Andante theme and five variations takes the slow-movement position and this is followed by a genial Presto, which trundles along rather than scurrying – at greater length than would probably be ideal. The final movement is marked Lento - although this probably applies only to the introduction since most of the movement is more of an Allegro moderato. The booklet notes indicate that its introduction draws on the main theme of the first movement but it reminded me rather more of the slow movement of Brahms’ Horn Trio, Op.40 (of 1865). At any rate, this is probably the most interesting movement of the four. Themes emerge clearly and the music is reasonably varied, building to a climax with a short and ferocious cadenza-like passage for piano before being rapidly brought to a virtuoso conclusion. A gushingly favourable review of the printed edition of the work appeared in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeuitung in August 1878, two months prior to the premiere, but the trio seems to have attracted little attention after this.

The rather more mature Second Piano Trio, Op.36, which appeared in 1882 and was published in 1884, is a slightly shorter work – reflecting (as the booklet notes put it): “Herzogenberg’s endeavouring toward motivic-thematic concentration and formal tightening”. As with Op.24, there are four movements, which are in the same sequence - although the Andante second movement (effectively the slow movement) was originally placed third. The Allegro first movement “begins melancholily” [sic], again with a cello melody, and “continues to be stamped by a mild seriousness”. The original performers obviously had problems with it because of a lack of tempo markings. The composer himself, in a humorous poem he wrote for the benefit of potential performers, said of the Andante: “Please do make it as short as possible – then perhaps it’ll be supportable!” The Scherzo third movement sounds close to Brahms, with nicely varied use of pizzicato, and the composer’s own description of the music (suggesting “a demented demon”) seems unwarranted. The final Allegro moderato is even more Brahmsian and has two decent cantabile themes “striding along in a relaxed manner …[which are] developed to powerful climaxes here before the movement concludes with majestic sublimity”. One of Pittas’s observations relating to the last movement was that: “…all the instruments are too unintermittently occupied” and, whilst that sentiment could probably equally well be applied to the whole work, there is plenty of variety and interplay.

To the first potential performers of the just-published trio, Herzogenberg said of the work: “It has grown unforgivably dear to my heart. Play it through, please, a few times (I do mean a few times!) before you say anything”. He obviously recognised that the trio would not necessarily communicate well at a first hearing, but the performers found the work virtuosic and difficult and it was all of seven months before they could manage repeated playings of it. I gave it several hearings, though, and was pleased to find that it grew on me too. There is more light and shade than I initially thought and, although the music is rather earnest, its themes lodge in the memory better than those of, say, Taneiev - and it does not deserve to be neglected. My feeling is that it occupies the space somewhere between the trios of Brahms and those of Tovey – albeit without the genius of the former but also without the somewhat tedious length of the latter. As the booklet notes observe: “The success enjoyed by the Piano Trio No. 2 on its premiere can hardly be determined on the basis of the very few mentions of the concert.” Perhaps not surprisingly, it was not taken up at the time and this recording is probably one of its few outings since.

The Vienna Trio’s performances are really very fine and fluent, with no distracting mannerisms, and probably represent the best that can reasonably be expected from these works. The recordings are extremely good and lifelike. As will be evident from passages quoted above, the booklet notes are informative but poorly structured and translated, so they make laborious reading.

So, booklet notes aside, this is an interesting and very well-produced release. It provides further confirmation that, whilst the followers of Brahms never equalled him, some were obviously more equal than others - and Herzogenberg stood out.

Bob Stevenson



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