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Josef SCHELB (1894-1977)
Orchestral Music - Volume 1
Movimento 1 (1969) [15:47]
Music for Orchestra No. 3 (1972) [23:36]
Music for Orchestra No. 4 (1972) [26:04]
Liepāja Symphony Orchestra / Paul Mann
Philharmonie Baden-Baden / Pavel Baleff
rec. 2017, Great Amber Concert Hall, Liepāja, Latvia; live, 12 December 2014, Weinbrennersaal, Kurhaus, Baden-Baden (Music No. 4)
First recordings

This is the second release on Toccata Classics of music by the German composer Josef Schelb. The first was a CD of chamber music with clarinet (review). This one announces itself as Volume 1 of orchestral music. Schelb was born in 1894 in the spa town of Bad Krozingen near Freiburg. He studied piano and counterpoint with Hans Huber in Basel, and later with Bernhard Stavenhagen and Otto Barblan in Geneva. This launched a two-pronged career as pianist and teacher, and for thirty years, from 1924, he held a professorship in piano and composition in Karlsruhe. His last days were spent in Baden Baden where he devoted himself exclusively to composition. He died in Freiburg in 1977. His compositions include orchestral works, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, two ballets and an opera. His work was championed by such renowned conductors as Hermann Scherchen, Josef Krips and Bernard Haitink.

Schelb embraced a variety of styles, but in his later work, from the 1950s onwards, his music became more harmonically advanced. He started combining tonal and dodecaphonic principles. Hindemith, Hartmann and Bartók were strong influences. The range of expression in his music bears testimony to the significant events in his life: the early death of his mother, two World Wars, the rise of Nazism and the loss of his early manuscripts in a bombing raid in Karlsruhe in 1942. Conflicting emotions underpin his music; there is drama, fate, relentlessness, elegiac lyricism, playfulness, melancholy, hope and consolation.

Movimento 1 is the earliest work here, dating from 1969. For the most part, it is a work of exceptional vitality and dynamism, and those qualities I mentioned of drama, playfulness and optimism, yet with a slight hint of melancholy, all provide a wide-ranging musical narrative. Schelb's colourful scoring and masterly orchestration add both potency and a beguiling sonic blend.

The composer wrote five Musics for Orchestra, each similarly cast in a tripartite structure. Nos. 3 and 4 were penned in 1972. In both I detected atonal leanings and strong dissonances. In No. 3, a lively and boisterous movement sits centrally, framed by a flowing opener of bucolic persuasion and a theme and variation third movement. The theme is quite solemn and serious. The variations show a wealth of imaginative skill and compositional dexterity. I found No. 4 a much harder nut to crack. The first movement starts elegiacally, but soon the mood seems to take on a certain stubborn defiance. Slow, weighty and solemn, yet dignified—this sums up the middle movement. The finale is animated and fluid, and on a couple of occasions works up a decent head of steam. Although composed in the early seventies, it took over forty years for this work to be performed. This concert performance, given in Baden-Baden on 12 December 2014, is its premiere. It was recorded by Southwest German Radio in the presence of an enthusiastic audience.

All the performances here are well-recorded, stylish and alert. I enjoyed the music very much, and look forward, with eager anticipation, to the next volume. This constitutes an auspicious start to what promises to be compelling orchestral cycle.

Stephen Greenbank



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