Another winner from JoAnn Falletta, not this time roaming her Buffalo home, but persuading the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra to conclusively restore the credentials of Austrian composer and conductor Franz Schreker (1878-1934) whose reputation during his lifetime was considerable but who now seems to have fallen off the radar; yet Schreker was regarded as the only serious rival to Richard Strauss as a creator of operas. Schreker wrote nine such works and Prelude to a Drama (1914) is a concert overture associated with Der Gezeichneten, “a lurid drama involving murder and madness.” At close on twenty minutes it’s far too long to set before an audience ahead of curtain up, but on its own terms as a vivid orchestral tone-poem it is wonderfully atmospheric and engrossing, superbly scored, colourful and sumptuous, and almost filmic in its descriptive powers as well as bursting with engaging rhythm and gorgeous melody: here is a composer that would have done Hollywood proud in a manner similar to Korngold, Steiner and others of that golden period.
The Birthday of the Infanta (1923) is a “theatrical pantomime [that] adapts Oscar Wilde’s tragic tale of an ugly dwarf who dies of a broken heart”, not that you’d guess it from the often-charming music – ten short movements, some running continuously – which is so beguiling and impressionistic, and once again demonstrating Schreker’s acute ear for texture (I hear a guitar ... well, if Mahler could use one) and also his generous harmonious nature, music that paints vibrant pictures and touches the heart, and he could waltz with the best of them, owing nothing to any Strauss you care to name; and, yes, as the music heads towards its conclusion, a poignant sadness is apparent.
The four-movement Romantic Suite is the earliest piece here, 1903, maybe less individual than the later Schreker but with no shortage of attraction, whether the intense, rather dusky, opening ‘Idylle’ (with a linger of Tristan) – Falletta controlling a spacious tempo immaculately, played with sensitivity – or the bucolic sidestepping ‘Scherzo’, the ethereal ‘Intermezzo’ (opening with violins in their highest register) that becomes warmer and more animated (and somewhat English, think Parry), and finally a rumbustious and lyrical ‘Tanz’ that has a Russian tint (no more than that) to it, César Cui-like, maybe.
These are excellent performances, very well recorded. Hopefully a second Schreker volume will appear, to include ‘Nachtstück’ from Der ferne Klang (more substantial that its “Intermezzo” designation suggests) and, probably Schreker’s best-known orchestral work, the Chamber Symphony (1916) for twenty-three instruments.