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Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Vorspiel zu einem Drama [18:03]
Der Geburstag der Infantin – Suite [20:28]
Romantische Suite [25:20]
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 2017, GroβerSendesaal des RBB, Berlin
NAXOS 8.573821 [64:10]

It must have been during the late 1970s when I first came across the music of Franz Schreker. A friend had returned from Austria with an LP containing a poor-quality radio recording of his Kammersymphonie. Despite the technically fallible disc, I recall being entranced, and immediately tried to find a locally available recording of it and any other works by this unknown composer, who was capable of conjuring such wondrous textures from a small orchestra.

Of course, in the days before the Internet, finding obscure recordings was no easy task. The Gramophone Catalogue was my sole resource. Compare the situation then to now – most of Schreker’s operas have been recorded, and so have multiple versions of his orchestral works. Alas, no English-language biography is available, although D. Christopher Hailey, an American academic, has written a substantial one, 550 pages no less, published earlier this year. Alas, it is only available in German.

Schreker had early success but, as half-Jewish, he suffered at the rising tide of antisemitism that gradually convulsed Germany. Fascist demonstrations against his work together with dismissal from employment in 1932 and 1933 probably contributed to strokes in December 1933, followed by his death three months later.

This CD opens with the voluptuous Vorspiel zu einem Drama of 1913. The orchestration glimmers and shimmers to an almost decadent degree. The music is extracted from the opera Die Gezeichneten (The Marked Ones), which established Schreker’s German reputation as a leading exponent of Expressionism when it won critical acclaim at its premiere. The Vorspiel successfully condenses themes relating to the opera’s three main characters, and I find it to be intensely memorable.

The next work is the Suite from the pantomime Der Geburstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta) of 1923. The music for the pantomime was composed in 1908, and was a great success, but Schreker only extracted the suite in 1923. In so doing he expanded the orchestration to bring greater opulence, whilst maintaining the chamber-like textures. There are ten sections, representing scenes such as ‘Dance of the Dwarf’, ‘With the Wind in Springtime’, ’In Blue Sandals over the Cornfields’, and ‘The Rose of the Infanta’. The music is not as chromatic as the later Vorspiel, but it displays Schreker’s melodic and instrumental gift.

The CD closes with the earliest work, the Romantic Suite of 1903. Its third movement Intermezzo, which won a competition in 1901, is wistful and charming. Schreker surrounded it with the aptly named Idylle, which manages to be both alternately serene and intense, providing an inviting introduction to the work. It is followed by a fleet-footed Scherzo and finishes with a Tanz, which occasionally sounds as though it might be closing a much larger symphonic work. Given its early date, it is not surprising that its orchestration sounds rather more conventional than in the Vorspiel.

As might be expected, The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra plays these works in an expert and fully committed fashion. The recording is suitably lush, although I could have done with a bit more clarity to fully reveal the astonishing textures of the Vorspiel. The booklet in English and German is extremely detailed, and one can learn a lot about Schreker by reading its essay.

I enjoyed this CD very much, and at its modest price I feel sure that it presents a considerable treat to anyone wanting to become familiar with Schreker’s art.
Jim Westhead

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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