Schreker: Orchestral Works (CD)

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Valda Wilson, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Christopher Ward

Trained as a violinist and as a composer at the Vienna Conservatory, Franz Schreker belongs to that group of composers whose careers were eclipsed by the events of 1933 in Germany, but whose music is now enjoying a welcome revival. Schreker was a prominent figure in early 20th-century Austro-German music, his reputation as an opera composer rivaling that of Richard Strauss. He wrote a relatively small amount of purely orchestral music, which is well represented on this programme. The recording will serve as an excellent introduction to a composer whose idiom often comes as a pleasant surprise to those unfamiliar with his work.

After the ban the Nazi rabble-rousers had imposed on him, it took a long time for Schreker’s oeuvre to be rediscovered, excavated from the archives, subjected to a re-appraisal and acknowledged as an indispensable element in one of the most fascinating periods of musical history. Although being taken for granted may bear the risk of renewed negligence, Franz Schreker’s status should no longer be challenged today. This makes it possible, apart from dealing with all of his main works also to consider what he himself perhaps did not deem his most ground-breaking works, ones permitting interesting insight into a musician’s workshop and displaying cross-references to his other works like you can hear on this recording.

Valda Wilson is the featured soloist on this release. Initially trained at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the soprano went on to win Opera Foundation Australia’s scholarship to the National Opera Studio London. She is one of the most versatile, exciting and musically curious sopranos of her generation, and is currently singing at the Saarlaendisches Staatstheater in several productions.

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1. Ekkehard (1902/03)
Symphonic Overture, Op. 12

2–3. On Eternal Life (1923 / 1927)
Two lyrical songs for soprano and orchestra
(Text: Hans Reisiger after Walt Whitman)

4. Fantastic Overture, Op. 15

5–8. Four little pieces for large orchestra (1930)
Four sketches for film

9. Prelude to a Grand Opera (1933)

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A lush treat, with a notable local contribution



Franz Schreker was the last of the German post-Romantics who wrote vast operas and lush orchestral scores in the wake of Richard Strauss. (Actually, Korngold was the last, but he moved to Hollywood to do it.) Schreker had his major successes such as the operas Die Gezeichneten and Der Ferne Klang before and during the First World War, but from the mid-1920s critical tide began to turn. Anti-Semitism had something to do with this, along with an increasing feeling that his musical style had dated. He died at 56 in 1934. Today we don't care if he was behind the times or whether his family was Jewish: it's the music that matters. If you are a lover of Straussian textures and complex tonal harmony, Schreker's your man.

This program brings us four orchestral works, including three concert overtures, and two songs for soprano and orchestra––settings in German translation of poems by Walt Whitman. The earliest work is the symphonic overture Ekkehard (1902-03), with its arresting, Wagnerian opening but an unexpectedly quiet ending. The Fantastic Overture (1904) shows an advance to a more personal sound, as does the later Prelude to a Grand Opera (1933), but all three pieces contain lively scherzo sections, romantic melodies, and lashings of orchestral colour. The other work on the disc is from 1930: Four Little Pieces for Large Orchestra, subtitled Four Sketches for Film. They are quirky musical character sketches. At the time Schreker was attempting to break into the new medium (as his operas were no longer being produced), apparently without success.

These performances by the Deutsche State Philharmonic (Rheinland-Pfalz) under the young British conductor Christopher Ward are animated and expressive without overdosing on schmaltz. Soprano Valda Wilson is from Sydney, a winner in 2008 of an Opera Australia Foundation scholarship that took her to Germany where she is much in demand. She sings the Whitman songs beautifully, floating some lovely high notes in the second ("The Grass"), while her quick vibrato perfectly suits music of this era. A real treat.