Schreker: The Birthday of the Infanta Suite
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
Total Time: 64:10
The music of Austrian composer Franz Schreker (1878-1934) has slowly begun to grown in its reputation again after decades of neglect. He was coming into his own as a composer at the crossroads of every major musical aesthetic of the early 20th Century and as such one can hear this fascinating blend of “-isms” in his music that also explores color and orchestration in fascinating ways. As the century opened, he was becoming acknowledged as the most important voice in German opera even overshadowing Richard Strauss. As the director of the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik his influence would be felt in the music and careers of Berthold Goldschmidt, Jascha Horenstein, Ernst Krenek, Artur Rodzinski, and Stefan Wolpe among many others. However, as the Nazis gained influence and power, and with growing anti-semitism, he was removed from his positions and his music was labeled as “degenerate” and “progressive”. By his death, he had been completely marginalized. Because his music had been underperformed, one might first hear connections to Wagner and Richard Strauss, but one discovers is a singular composer who shaped those styles into a highly individual one with often fascinating results.
The album opens with a lengthy Prelude to a Drama (1914) which was commissioned by Felix Weingartner in 1913 and premiered in Vienna the following year. It is crafted from the music for Schreker’s opera Die Gezeichnetsen. The concert prelude recorded here follows the general narrative of the plot exploring many of the primary themes. What is most striking though is that this music has the sort of soundworld of Korngold and Zemlinsky and may have many listeners thinking they have managed to discover a long lost film score. One can hear some of the impassioned Wagnerian style with the expansiveness of Mahler. It makes for a thrilling introduction to the album. The variety of color from the orchestration is stunning with excellent expanded percussion adding extra flair. After all the flurry of sound it ends quietly creating this large wonderful musical arc.
Among his more popular works at the time was a pantomime of Oscar Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infant. It follows the tale of an ugly dwarf who is taken from his forest home and presented as a gift to the Spanish Infanta. A variety of scenes with a bull fight and puppet theater add some variety. At the center of the tale is the dwarf’s belief that the Infanta loves him, which is shattered when he sees his reflection and realizes she has been mocking him the whole time. Grete Wiesenthal commissioned the work and danced the part of the dwarf opposite her sister Elsa. The first performance took place June 27, 1908. Schreker was hoping to rework the piece into a ballet, but decided instead to put together an extended orchestral suite which he began working on in 1922 and completed the following year. Willem Mengelberg led its premiere at the Concergebouw in October, 1923.
For the most part the ten-movement work follows the general story of the pantomime with an interlude and a final scene omitted. “Reigen” opens the work with a sort of light hustle and bustle and a light thematic idea for winds. The colorful writing moves us into some royal court music, the likes one might expect in a Korngold period drama score. Throughout the work, one gets to hear the gorgeous sound of the Berlin RSO who is at the top of their game. Falletta shapes this music beautifully helping us hear the emotional pull of the story and the heartbreaking moments are all the more poignant as a result. It is simply an amazing performance all around both when different sections get a chance to be more exposed, and when the full orchestra comes to the forefront. The dynamic shaping and attention to detail helps make this an even more stunning performance.
The final work on the release is the Romantic Suite, Op. 14 (1903). The four-movement work has its parallels in composers who used this format to explore and develop their own musical language in this period. Each of the movements here are representative of the period and a composer’s first foray into orchestral writing. Removing the formal expectations of a symphony, Schreker opens with an extended lyrical “Idylle” followed by a fun “Scherzo”, tuneful “Intermezzo” and concluding “Dance”. As an early work, one does not quite hear the sort of musical assuredness in the superb earlier pieces on the album. It is a work of its time really fitting any of the composers active at the turn of the 20th Century. However, having it here helps remind us of the greatness that was to come. Here too the Berlin RSO responds very well to this music making a great case for its preservation.
Recorded over a few days in June 2017, this is one of Naxos’ finest albums that finds Falletta in great command of an ensemble she appears to be recording with for the first time. That said, the results here leave one hoping that she will return to explore more of this amazing repertoire. Highly recommended!