Christopher Fifield

Franz Xaver Schnyder von Wartensee: Overture; Symphony No. 3

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Swiss composer Franz Xaver Schnyder von Wartensee is certainly a name one does not encounter everyday. His Overture in C minor (1818) begins rather unpromisingly with a slow introduction that pits plodding horns against a timpani tattoo, but once into the movement we discover a distinctive voice working within the shadow of Beethoven. Apart from the opening, the overture is reminiscent of Schubert and the early orchestral music of Franz Berwald, down to the latter's occasional eccentricities; it was first given in Frankfurt under the baton of Louis Spohr. One contemporary reviewer commented, "it was such a beautiful piece that it could have been Rossini," a composer whom Schnyder most certainly does NOT sound like.

His "Military Symphony" in B flat major was the third of four symphonies of Schnyder von Wartensee, not counting the fragment of a fifth. Both subtitle and choice of key give the wrong impression of what this symphony sounds like. While trumpet tattoos and palpitating pauken do figure in as part of the texture, this is a highly variable and original conception, superficially like Berwald but actually existing in its own realm. It has cyclical references between its first and second movements, and opens with an unresolved augmented chord spread through the band in a manner similar to the klangfarbenmelodie so beloved of the Vienna serialists. Perhaps it is appropriate that Schnyder von Wartensee's effort should find redemption, in the modern era, at the behest of a close associate of the Second Vienna School, Herrmann Scherchen, who first revived it in Geneva in 1939. During the Second World War, Schnyder von Wartensee's "Military Symphony" became something of a musical equivalent to the Swiss concept of Geistige Landesverteidigung (spiritual national defense); the idea of defending Switzerland's democratic system while retaining its neutrality as a county. However, such distinction did not get it recorded; this Sterling effort seems to be the only recording of the work made since Peter Lukas-Graf first set it down with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich in 1964, and this is in spite of the fact that a critical edition of the symphony has been available since 1973.

Sterling's performance, by the Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen under Christopher Fifield, is good, though loose in spots. One wishes for more concision at the start of the third-movement Scherzo, and wonder what a conductor like John Eliot Gardiner or Frans Bruggen might make of this work. Nevertheless, in terms of making this important work available to modern listeners, Sterling's effort is fine -- if one takes an interest in nineteenth century romanticism beyond Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann, then these are works you will definitely want to know.

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