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27.8.15

Briefly Noted: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Composer

available at Amazon
E.T.A. Hoffmann / F. Witt, Symphonies / Overtures, Kölner Akademie, M. A. Willens

(released on February 10, 2015)
cpo 777208-2 | 61'39"
E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) is likely familiar to most readers as a writer, especially through the musical works his stories have inspired. He was also a talented music critic, artist, and composer. Although I was aware that Hoffmann had actually composed music, I had never heard any of it before until this recording by the Kölner Akademie came across my desk. Although Hoffmann wrote music for a setting of the Mass, a number of operas and other stage works, and a symphony, little seems available in modern recording. In addition to their fine Mozart piano concerto cycle, with Ronald Brautigam, Michael Alexander Willens and his ensemble continue to unearth obscure music in their series of discs for the CPO label.

Hoffmann's most important opera Undine, praised by Carl Maria von Weber in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, was premiered five years before that composer's Der Freischütz. It likely influenced Weber in his creation of that work, now generally seen as the beginning of German Romantic opera. Willens offers only the overture, a tantalizing glimpse of a Zauberopera that has been recorded before but is no longer easily available, at least by traditional means (the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra's performance is on YouTube). It is paired with the overture and a march from the final scene of Hoffmann's earlier opera Aurora, which never saw the stage in Hoffmann's lifetime.

Hoffmann once offered an appreciative critique of the symphonies of his contemporary, Friedrich Witt (1770-1836), a minor German Kapellmeister, after sponsoring a performance of one of them. In his review for the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Hoffmann perceptively described the German symphony of the time as "the ultimate form of instrumental music -- the opera of instruments as it were." He was that rare sort of critic: one who had actually composed a symphony himself. Both Hoffmann's Symphony in E-Flat Major and Witt's Symphony in A Major, which bookend the overtures on this disc, are in the mold of Haydn, diverting and beautifully played. Neither work strikes me as a masterpiece, compact at around 20 minutes in duration, with mild Andante serenade movements and short-but-sweet menuetti, but either one would make a fine alternative for a concert program.

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