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The Curiously Delightful, Delightfully Exotic World of cpo

It should come to the surprise of no one who follows CD reviews on Ionarts that we have a penchant for the eclectic and curiosities. Not because there is such a dearth of great music that we need dig through the scraps of music history, but rather because there is so much splendid, fine, good, occasionally great music that does not have an immediately recognizable name on the front of the score. Few labels serve this penchant better than the German label cpo, in concept (and price) a hybrid between ever curious Naxos and the inquisitive and unrepentantly high-quality hyperion label.

available at Amazon
G.Onslow, Nonet, Quintet
Mandelring Octet, Ma'alot Q5t
cpo 777151

German-based and central European in focus (Dacapo is its Scandinavian equivalent), cpo leaves no late Romantic, Baroque, or Classical stone (composer) unturned to bring stunning surprises and many semiprecious works to light. If you have had your momentary fill of Beethoven, for example, Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), Johann Wilhelm Wilms (1772-1847), Antonin “Mr. Wind Quintet” Reicha (1770-1836), Johann Nepumuk Hummel (1778-1837), François-Joseph Gossec (1734-1829), Louis Emmanuel Jadin (1768-1853), Louis Spohr (1784-1859), and Onslow (1784-1853) compositions might just provide the necessary diversion. Among these, Ries, Reicha, and Onslow are served with the greatest diligence by cpo. (You can find some Jadin string quartets on naïve, Wilms symphonies on Archiv, Reicha quintets – most of the cpo discs seem unavailable in the U.S. – on Crystal Records, Gossec’s great Requiem on Naxos, various Hummel on Chandos/Chaconne, MDG and hyperion/delios.)

Onslow is a funny fish in music. His name sounds English (an English father is responsible), his music German, but Onslow himself was French. Not part of the busy, largely academic, composer society in Paris, he chose instead to live his comfortable life as part of the country nobility. One ought to be excused if his composing seems tantamount to a ‘hobby’ from afar, but listening to the results belies such notions. His musical pedigree is superb: teachers were J. L. Dussek, J. B. Cramer, and the above-mentioned Reicha.

available at Amazon E.N.v.Reznicek, Schlemihl,
M.Jurowski / WDR SO
cpo 999795

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon A.A.Saygun, Complete SQ4ts,
Quatour Danel
cpo 999923

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon E.Wellesz, Sys.# 3 & 5,
G.Rabl / Vienna RSO
cpo 999999

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon J.W.Kalliwoda, Sys.# 5 & 7,
C.Spering / New Berlin CO
cpo 777139

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon F.X.Neruda, Cello Ctos. 1-5,
B.Altenburg / Dessau Philharmonic / G.Berg
cpo 777192

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon J.Zarebski, Piano Works,
Marian Mika
cpo 777193

UK | DE | FR
The most recent Onslow offering by cpo features the Nonet, op. 77, in A minor and the Quintet no. 19, op. 44, in C minor. The quintet is scored for string quartet and double bass (Holmboe and Milhaud are the only other composers I know of that wrote for that rare combination.) The 1846 Nonet in the flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass instrumentation has Spohr’s F major Nonet (1813) as its only predecessor; Franz Lachner (F minor – 1875) and Joseph Rheinberger (E-flat, op. 139 – 1884) would follow. Upon any Nonet sighting, I hope it might be as much a marvel as Rheinberger’s, but nothing can quite match that very extraordinary work. Still, Onslow’s piece offers thirty-some minutes of whatever the word would be that suggests ‘pleasantness’ minus the inevitable ‘damning with faint praise’ connotation. Similarly the Quintet is agreeable and charming fare. If there is a slight tinge of disappointment floating through these lines, it does only for the fact that I had even higher, perhaps unrealistic, expectations given the unalloyed excellence of the other works by Onslow that I have heard.

If middle and late, rather than early, Romantics are your game, Joachim Raff (1822-1882), Hans Rott (1858-1884), Othmar Schoeck (1858-1947), Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949), Egon Wellesz (1885 – 1974), Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek (1860-1945), Franz Schreker (1878-1934), Ahmet Adnan Saygun (1907-1991), and Max von Schillings (1869-1933) might do the trick. Most of them are well served by cpo – and you should pick up a Wellesz symphony, Saygun string quartets, and Reznicek’s “Schlemihl” for starters.

available at Amazon
F.Weingartner, Symphony No.3,
Letonja / SO Basel
cpo 777100

Felix Weingartner (1863-1942, he of conducting fame) is a bona fide composer, too – and fits right into the above crowd. Take his Third Symphony coupled with the Lustige Ouvertüre, op. 53, and you get a pastiche of styles that combines (in the best imaginable fashion) the great Romantics that came before him. Meistersinger meet Musorgsky, Strauss (both, Richard and Johann, Jr.), a tad Bruckner, a third movement that sounds like Mahler with a dull blade (this is not derision!) and ends with a very Wagnerian final chord. In the last movement you hear yourself vis-à-vis Offenbach. Add excellent playing from the Sinfonieorchester Basel under Marko Letonja (unknown forces to me, until now) and great sound (SACD surround available on this hybrid disc), and you have a Romantic winner with a big smile and an even bigger heart.

Looking forward to Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda’s (1801-1866) symphonies was natural. Not, of course, based on the fame that precedes his works but based on the very anonymity of this composer. Somehow neither the Fifth (1840) nor the Seventh (1841) symphony struck a chord with me. Amiable: very much so. Exciting: not quite. Showing how “amiable” can be combined with exciting is Franz Xaver Neruda (1843 – 1915), another deliciously obscure Kleinmeister. Five short cello concertos fill two discs that are lightly filled (82 minutes total playing time - unacceptably sold for the price of two) with arch-Romantic, frothy, luminous, delicate, and nimble gems. It isn’t challenging, it isn’t novel… there are many things these one-movement concertos are not. But they are always delighting, and if I were a cellist I could scarcely think of better works as a substantial encore with orchestra. Golo Berg conducts the Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau, and Beate Altenburg must consider herself lucky to have added these works to her repertoire. Her passionate reading suggests she likes playing them every bit as much as you will enjoy listening to them.

The short-lived Polish pianist and composer Juliusz Zarebski (1854 – 1885) largely left piano works behind – and Marian Mika recorded some for cpo. Much liked as a student and pianist by Franz Liszt, Zarebski displays some of the Romantic piano flair of his teacher’s works in his own pieces… but they often prove more accessible than Liszt’s. His Grand Polonaise, op. 6, for example, has a serene element that softens the harsh edges that Liszt often worked with. Brilliance never dominates despite challenging writing and challenging harmonics. Les roses et les épines, op. 13, could be said to hint at the way Debussy would later treat the piano. For lovers of piano music by Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, MacDowell, et al., this would be much more than just an interesting acquisition.

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