Christopher Fifield

Philipp Scharwenka: Frühlingswogen; Arkadische Suite; Liebesnacht

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The Swedish Sterling label, when it is on task and the music it uncovers is worthwhile, is really capable of unearthing some stunning treasures from the vaults of Western music's less-vaunted past. Polish composer Philipp Scharwenka was elder brother by three years to Xaver Scharwenka, one of the most celebrated piano virtuosi in the latter days of the Romantic era and a composer whose works have enjoyed a second-tier status. His piano concerti and certain short piano pieces have been widely recorded. The fate of brother Philipp's compositions doesn't even rise to the second tier; the 20 (of at least 120) or so works that have been recorded have only been done one time, mostly on short-lived releases. Conductor Christopher Fifield and the Gävle Symphony have taken up the gauntlet for Philipp Scharwenka's orchestral work, following in the footsteps of an earlier Sterling release that essayed some of Xaver's purely orchestral music that in itself is somewhat dwarfed by his output for the piano.

Grove's notes that Philipp Scharwenka was a "competent, dedicated composer and teacher"; both during his lifetime and in posterity, the elder Scharwenka exists in the shadow of his younger brother. Part of the neglect results from the sheer reality that Philipp Scharwenka's music, at least judging from what is included here, is strongly derivative of styles and composers around him, particularly that of Wagner and Grieg, the latter most obviously in the Frühlingswogen that opens the disc. Strong echoes of what seems to be Humperdinck and Tchaikovsky are heard at various points, but Philipp Scharwenka's compositions precede and do not antedate such "models." Moreover, the quality of the music is very high; despite its close relationship to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Scharwenka's Liebesnacht, a symphonic poem based likewise on the Tristan legend, is extremely listenable -- hard to put down, even. It has a nice and consistent sense of forward flow and enough genuine inspiration that it makes Grove's weak assertion that Scharwenka was merely "competent" seem a little stingy. There are some passages in the Arkadische Suite that seem a little pedestrian and smack of operetta. However, the closing "Brautzug und Hochzeitsfeier" movement, with its horn calls and heroic spirit, brings to mind Korngold's music for The Adventures of Robin Hood, another work that Scharwenka would be in advance of, though by a considerably greater margin than he is to Humperdinck and Tchaikovsky.

While Sterling's Philipp Scharwenka: Frühlingswogen -- Arkadische Suite -- Liebesnacht may not be quite a "stunning treasure" owing to Scharwenka's own obvious lack of originality, this should not be taken for a lack of inspiration. He had that; Fifield has done well by reviving these modest orchestral nuggets from the last third of the nineteenth century. Fifield also should be commended for the fine job he has done in piloting the Gävle Symphony through these works, familiar in style but not in themselves; it would have been easy to put the orchestra on "automatic pilot" in the course of realizing them, as this is sort of music that is the bread and butter of symphony orchestras. As Fifield does not take the easy course, the performances sparkle, also helped by Sterling's terrific recording quality.

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