In concert – Dame Sarah Connolly, CBSO / Gustavo Gimeno: Humperdinck, Chausson & Tchaikovsky


Humperdinck Hänsel und Gretel – Prelude (1891-2)
Poème de l’amour et de la mer Op.19 (1882-92)
Symphony no.6 in B minor Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893)

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gustavo Gimeno

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 23 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon’s programme (repeated from yesterday) by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw a welcome reappearance from Dame Sarah Connolly for a relatively rare hearing, at least in the UK, of Ernest Chausson’s probable masterpiece Poème de l’amour et de la mer.

Often described as a song-cycle, Poème is closer to a scena with its unfolding over two large parts separated by an orchestral interlude. Drawing on texts by Maurice Bouchor, these evoke what is ostensibly the protagonist’s ill-fated affair but whose deeper resonance suggests more that disillusion afforded when revisiting the past. Such a trajectory could easily have resulted in indulgence or even self-pity, avoided through Chausson’s unerring formal control over his subject-matter as well as a thematic resourcefulness sustained across the near half-hour span.

Following in a distinguished lineage of mezzos (among them Dame Janet Baker), Connolly brought out the playfulness of La fleur des eaux as it conveys the burgeoning of love against a heady seascape – doubt only creeping in towards the close as the passing of a year is contemplated. This is represented by the Interlude in which first appears a theme dominant by the close, and while the opening of La mort de l’amour brings a renewed anticipation of arrival, the anguish occasioned by forgetfulness is transmuted into a brooding fatalism – the composer drawing on an earlier song for this sombre final stage. Connolly’s eloquence came into its own here, abetted by a soulful response from cellist Eduardo Vassallo among an orchestral response abounding in soloistic finesse. A powerful reading of a still underestimated piece.

Chausson lived a further six years after its premiere in 1893, whereas Tchaikovsky lived just nine days after the premiere that year of his Pathétique before his still-contested demise. Here again, there was no undue emoting thanks to Gustavo Gimeno’s firm grip over the complex formal and emotional trajectory of the first movement – not least its explosive development culminating in an anguished yet also consoling reprise. The ensuing intermezzo had charm but also a purposeful underlying tread – not least in its wistful trio, then the scherzo amassed no mean impetus through to an explosive second half whose orchestral response evinced no mean virtuosity. Heading straight into the finale, Gimeno sustained expressive tension right through to the closing bars as here faded into a silence born of resignation rather than defeat.

The close of that year brought the premiere of Humperdinck’s ‘fairy-tale’ opera Hänsel und Gretel – then, as now, the work by which this undervalued composer is best remembered and whose prelude encapsulates the essence, though not the totality, of the drama while proving equally effective as a concert-overture. Gimeno paced this unerringly, thereby allowing its animated central phase to merge unobtrusively out of then back into the confiding warmth either side. At least one major work written in 1893 can be said to have a ‘happy ending’.

Next week’s concert brings pieces from very different eras – Brahms’s First Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto being preceded by another of the CBSO’s Centenary Commissions, an evidently celebratory overture by Mark-Anthony Turnage called Go For It.

For more information on next week’s concert, click here for tickets. You can find information on the new CBSO season here, and for more on Symphonic Sessions click here

On record – Dario Salvi conducts Humperdinck: Music for the Stage (Naxos)

a Andrea Chudak (soprano); b Ruxandra Voda van der Plas (contralto); c Harrie van der Plas (tenor); d Robert Bennesh (organ); Malmö Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Dario Salvi

Die Heirat wider Willen (1905) – Prelude to Act Two
Der Kaufmann von Venedig (1905) – Incidental Music (abce)
Das Wunder (1912) – Suite (arr. Lotter) (d)
Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar (1878) (acd)
Lysistrata (1908) – Incidental Music (e)

Naxos 8.574177 [73’27”] German texts can be found here:

Producer / Engineer Sean Lewis

Recorded 13-17 August 2019 at Bengt Hall-salen, Malmö, Sweden

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos continues its exploration into late-Romantic byways with this selection of theatre and choral works by Engelbert Humperdinck, presented so as to confirm a composer whose music more than makes up for what it might lack in overall individuality with expressive generosity.

What’s the music like?

The recent appearance of William Melton’s biography (Toccata Press) was of great value in conveying Humperdinck as a figure both selfless and humane; and a composer whose output reflects these qualities so that a personable and appealing musical idiom is always to the fore.

The selection gets underway with the Prelude to the second act of The Forced Marriage, after Alexandre Dumas, and the most likely among Humperdinck’s ‘forgotten’ operas to be worthy of revival. At least, the glowering intensity of this music set in the Bastille suggests as much.

Humperdinck contributed music to several productions by Max Reinhardt, with that for The Merchant of Venice running the gamut from very brief vocal or instrumental cues to such as a lilting Sarabande and a Procession of Masks which exude an engaging verve. The Casket Song draws a winsome response from female soloists and chorus, while the most extended item is an orchestral commentary on the text In such a night whose (not unduly) Wagnerian overtones and gently emergent rapture ought to secure more regular hearings in its own right.

Despite a lavish ‘multi-media’ premiere at Covent Garden, the sanctimonious scenario of the film The Miracle sealed its fate. Adolf Lotter’s suite deserves better – the evocative Prelude for organ leading into the lively Procession and Children’s Dance, then a festive ‘Banquet Scene’ finds contrast with the chaste Dance of the Nuns. A whimsical March of the Army is itself juxtaposed with the plangent Death Motif, before the Christmas Scene bestows a typically glowing atmosphere which the Finale to Act One builds to an eloquent apotheosis.

Much the earliest work, the cantata after Heine’s ballad The Pilgrimage to Kevlaar established Humperdinck’s reputation and is still occasionally revived – though not in the original version recorded here. If those swirling textures of the first section remind one that Humperdinck was soon to prove an invaluable amanuensis for Wagner, the central section renders the brunt of the narrative with considerable fervency, before the final section tempers the ostensibly tragic turn of events with a forceful reaffirmation of belief prior to its warmly consoling conclusion.

Finally, to incidental music for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – comprising a perky Entr’acte for brass and woodwind, a vaunting Festal Procession that juxtaposes then combines male and female voices, then a Closing Song that elaborates its woodwind melodies to piquant effect.

Does it all work?

Yes, bearing in mind that Humperdinck never sought to impress his personality on the task at hand. Within its self-imposed limits, the theatre music is always suited to what is portrayed on stage, with the Heine setting among the most persuasive instances of a much-maligned genre.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The various vocal and choral contributions have all the requisite limpidity and poise, while the Malmö Opera forces acquit themselves with verve and elegance under the capable guidance of Dario Salvi – whose efforts in raising the profile of this music compels respect.

Listen & Buy

You can get more information on the disc at the Capriccio website, or purchase from Naxos Direct. Meanwhile for more information on the recent Toccata Press book on Humperdinck, you can head to their website

On paper – Humperdinck: A Life of the composer of Hänsel und Gretel by William Melton (Toccata Press)

Humperdinck: A Life of the Composer of Hänsel und Gretel by William Melton, with a Foreword by John Mauceri
Toccata Press [hardback, 456pp, b/w illustrations, ISBN 978-0-907689-92-8]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Several years ago the singer formerly known as Arnold Dorsey was asked how he had chosen his stage-name, to which he replied that it was his manager’s decision and he had simply gone along with it – having known nothing about the composer in question and remaining ignorant of his music through to the present. Certainly, he took nothing by him in his eight choices on Desert Island Discs in 2004. Hardly unexpected, beyond confirmation that, then as before, the real Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) was fair game on account of his diminished status.

A status that, even now, is hardly what it was during the quarter-century up to the composer’s death and which itself was owing almost entirely to Hänsel und Gretel – the ‘fairy tale opera’ whose wildfire success throughout the Western world transformed Humperdinck’s reputation, in his fortieth year, from provincial teacher and well regarded purveyor of cantatas and songs to the leading German composer of his generation. Such success might have transformed his professional and financial standing, but it also created an aesthetic image such as could only become more stereotyped as time passed. Such acclaim that he later achieved was inevitably viewed (and not merely by his detractors) within the context of that one work, ensuring that Humperdinck’s legacy was fixed in the public mind even had he ceased composing thereafter.

This is reflected not least by the dearth of writing about his music, so that William Melton’s remark about this being the first biography in English is no idle claim. With the centenary of Humperdinck’s death barely a year away, its issue could not have been more timely – were it less than a total success. Melton, whose research into and publication on the ‘lost generation’ of Romantic composers is considerable and ongoing, has left little to chance when bringing to light vital information which, while it may have been known to specialists, has lain dormant in archives on both sides of the Atlantic until the present. Its sifting and distillation enabled a deeper appreciation than seemed possible or, indeed, necessary – Humperdinck emerging as the pivotal figure in German music from the demise of Wagner to the emergence of Strauss.

Although he does not exclude musical examples or eschew analytical discussion, Melton’s is primarily a biographical study as surveys Humperdinck’s emergence – halting and thereafter effortful – from his Rhenish origins, via dogged studies then extensive journeying in France and Spain, to his unexpected involvement with the circle around Wagner; on whose Parsifal he left more than a passing impression. Staying on cordial terms with Cosima and Siegfried, his distancing from the ‘cult of Bayreuth’ says much for his unforced independence of spirit.
Melton is mindful not to divide Humperdinck’s career into a crude ‘before and after’ Hänsel scenario, even if those changes arguably inhibited his future development with the demands of teaching and other duties. Succeeding operas Dornröschen and Die Heirat wider Willen enjoyed no more than succès d’estime, with his wartime stage-works Die Marketenderin and Gaudeamus hampered from the outset by poor librettos. Most significant was Königskinder, evolving from an innovative yet impractical melodrama into a drama of no mean profundity, but initial success in New York and Europe was not sustained after the outbreak of war; its deeper subtleties even now insufficiently acknowledged. The composer thought it his greatest achievement, making the lack of a UK production for almost three decades more regrettable.

Throughout this study, Melton is an informed and reliable guide to those many incidents and intrigues that make Wilhelmine Germany so fascinating if dismaying an environment; over the course of which, Humperdinck’s life unfolds as though intent on shunning the limelight into which he had been thrust. His final decade makes for poignant reading as he battles the effects of a serious stroke, then endures the death of his wife along with various friends and colleagues. His last creative act was not musical but literary: an autobiographical fantasy, Die Zeitlose, where he finds himself transported back almost half a century to his hometown of Siegburg – experiencing with accrued wisdom the sights and persons of his formative years. His death soon after the onset of the Weimar Republic could not have seemed less relevant.

The book is rounded off by a full Catalogue of Works then an extensive Bibliography, with the numerous illustrations reproduced as part of the actual text rather than as separate plates. Three decades ago, Toccata Press put many in its debt with the first biography in English of George Enescu: if Humperdinck emerges as a less significant figure, this is hardly the fault of Melton who, in his brief yet pertinent Epilogue, describes the composer as ‘Not a Genius, but a Master’: the case for which is presented methodically and persuasively throughout his book.

Further information can be found here