Thursday, January 11, 2018

Carl Schuricht’s Unconventional Tastes

courtesy of Naxos of America

Carl Schuricht was one of those conductors whom I knew as a student only by name in conjunction with having recorded the music of Gustav Mahler. His Wikipedia page includes the following sentence:
His career was not that of a star but he was loved both by the orchestra members and audience.
It turns out that his Mahler connection was stronger than I could have anticipated, since he was responsible for arranging the first German festival honoring Mahler in April of 1921. At that festival he conducted five of the symphonies (2, 3, 5, 6, and 7), as well as “Das Lied von der Erde.” This festival was held in Wiesbaden, which had a reputation for organizing festivals of modern music conducted by Schuricht. Thus, Schuricht not only conducted Mahler but also Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Frederick Delius, and Arnold Schoenberg.

His efforts in Wiesbaden were probably inspired by a festival he attended in Essen in 1906, where he most likely heard the premiere of Mahler’s sixth symphony. More interesting, however, was that the festival also presented “Sea Drift,” a symphonic poem based on a text extracted from Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” composed by Frederick Delius for orchestra, chorus, and baritone soloist. Delius was present for the occasion. The music appealed to Schuricht so much that he met Delius and promised him that he would conduct it himself once he had an orchestra to lead. Delius would later attend that performance in Frankfurt.

The recordings listed on Schuricht’s Wikipedia page give little indication of his interest in straying from the “beaten path” repertoire. Fortunately, this past Friday Urania Records released a two-CD album of Schuricht conducting works that will probably be unfamiliar to just about all listeners other than those with a passion for digging up obscurities. In the context of his past history, the album includes a recording of “Sea Drift” (sung in German, rather than the original English) made in Stuttgart in 1963 with Schuricht conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and baritone soloist Carlos Alexander.

However, this Delius track is but the tip of a thoroughly impressive iceberg. The bulk of the iceberg can be found on the first CD of the album, which is devoted entirely to Robert Schumann’s Opus 115, Manfred: Dramatic Poem with Music in Three Parts. Composed in 1852, this was an adaptation of Lord Byron’s “Manfred,” completed in 1817, which he also called a “dramatic poem.” The title character is tortured with guilt over past acts that are never named; yet his death amounts to a liberating end to it all, rather than a conveyance to either heaven or hell. (As might be guessed, this poem was a significant inspiration for Friedrich Nietzsche.)

The bulk of Opus 115 is melodrama, recitation often against limited instrumental accompaniment. However, there is also an overture (which gets some exposure in the usual concert repertoire), orchestral interludes separating the parts, and vocal work for both soloists and a chorus. On the recording Schuricht conducts the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with the Chorus prepared by Chorus Master Werner Illing. The text is in German; and, as a result, there is little sense of Byron’s poetry. As a result, some may find the inclusion of the melodrama sections a bit of overkill; but there is still the because-its-there satisfaction of having a recording that accounts for the entire score.

The second CD concludes with “Sea Drift” and is preceded by four overtures that receive little, if any, attention in current concert (or recording) programming. The performance of these overtures again involve the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the recordings were probably also made in 1952. The selection most likely to resonate with at least some listeners will be the prelude to the first act of Richard Strauss’ Opus 25 opera Guntram. It is hard to ignore the influence of Richard Wagner on this music; and my own personal impressions were to regard this prelude as a sort of bridge that connects Parsifal to Der Rosenkavalier (Strauss’ Opus 59). Others may find fragments of recognition in the prelude, since it is quoted in Strauss’ Opus 40 tone poem “Ein Heldenleben.” Those curious about why Schuricht took an interest in this prelude may find evidence in the fact that it had previously been presented in concerts by Gustav Mahler when he was establishing his reputation as a conductor.

The other familiar composer on the second CD is Edvard Grieg, represented by his Opus 11 concert overture entitled “In Autumn.” This is very early Grieg, completed in 1865; and there is very much a sense that he is still finding his “sea legs” as a composer. It predates just about any Grieg most listeners are likely to know, including the first (Opus 12) Lyric Pieces collection, the Opus 16 piano concerto in A minor, and the Opus 23 incidental music for Peer Gynt. Nevertheless, one comes away with the impression of having listened to Grieg with little difficulty.

Of the remaining composers Hans Pfitzner is likely to be the more familiar. He is represented by the overture he composed in 1905 for his Opus 17 collection of incidental music for the play Das Käthchen von Heilbronn. This was probably written as part of his duties as the primary Kapellmeister for the Berlin Theater des Westens. The least familiar selection will probably be by the nineteenth-century composer Robert Volkmann, represented by his Opus 68 “Richard III” concert overture, which is likely to go against the grain of anyone familiar with that particular play by William Shakespeare.

While this is definitely not the only opportunity to listen to recordings of Schuricht’s conducting, these two CDs certainly demonstrate his capacity to seek out less familiar selections and then prepare interpretations that are likely to draw the attention of the serious listener.

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