Stohr orchestral v2 Toccata TOCC0472

Richard Stöhr (1874-1967)
Orchestral Music Volume 2
Suite No 1 in C major for string orchestra, Op 8 (1909)
Symphony No 1 in A minor, Op 18 (1909)
Sinfonia Varsovia/Ian Hobson
rec. 2022, Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio (S1), Polish Radio, Warsaw
Toccata Classics TOCC0472 [68]

A slightly peeved-looking Richard Stöhr gazes out of the cover of this new CD looking every inch the Austro-German Establishment composer. So all the more surprise – one suspects to Stöhr as much as anyone – that just three decades after the two works offered here were written, Stöhr (born Stern in Vienna) was a refugee in America managing to secure a berth on the last ship the Nazis allowed to sail from Bremerhaven. In America, he scraped a living mainly through teaching with Leonard Bernstein an admiring pupil.

But that would have seemed an impossible if not absurd scenario when the greatly enjoyable suite and symphony on this disc were written – both around 1909. Indeed, a good-natured confidence inhabits both works which even in the minor key symphony does not extend to any great soul-searching or melodrama. Toccata Classics are great supporters of the music of Richard Stöhr – this appears to be the seventh such disc devoted to his music – although it is the first music in any genre by this composer that I have heard. As with the label’s Volume 1 of the Orchestral Music, the performers here are Ian Hobson conducting the Sinfonia Varsovia. This team of musicians have proved themselves to be of an exceptional calibre over the years, recording very diverse repertoire for a variety of labels. I am especially fond of their revelatory cycle of the symphonies of Don Gillis on Albany. Given Stöhr’s statement; “I am not a modern composer, I do not understand the modern direction” you suspect he might have struggled with Don Gillis’ music – and much else – given that he lived on into his nineties in the USA.

Franz Schmidt was an exact Viennese contemporary but they occupy very different musical worlds. Schmidt’s harmonic palette is more complex than Stöhr’s and he developed symphonic form in a more personal and probably more individual way. Stöhr is a traditionalist but he has a melodic gift and an ability to handle his material in such an attractive way that he is lifted out of the run-of-the-mill post-Brahms, not-quite-Bruckner mould that seems to define many of the ‘forgotten’ Germanic composers of that period.

The disc opens with the three movement Suite No 1 in C major, Op 8 for string orchestra. This is a genuine and rather unexpected delight. Formally it is very well-balanced with a bustling 4:16 Präludium and closing Fuge – allegro grazioso [4:51] framing a genuinely beautiful 9:35 Andante. Several things become clear within the first few bars. Not least the fine playing of the Sinfonia Varsovia strings. The opening movement especially makes considerable demands upon the players which they respond to with ease. But it is the sunny, good-natured warmth of this music that registers very strongly. Also, the skill of Stöhr’s writing. My surprise is how very un-Germanic this music sounds. In this suite especially – the symphony acknowledges its musical homeland to a greater degree – Stöhr finds a fusion between the lyrical energy of Greig but with the rich instrumental sonorities of Tchaikovsky, which make for a very attractive amalgam. He often writes with the strings voiced quite closely together, giving the textures a warmth and vibrancy without the high/late-romanticism of Richard Strauss or the more experimental Viennese composers of the early 20th Century. Even the central Andante, which is written in F minor, holds the darker emotions in check. The closing Fuge manages to achieve a skilled balance between academic/formal “rightness” and a light-hearted, bubbling energy. As with the whole suite, it sounds as if it must be rather appealing to play – effective without being outrageously demanding. Certainly, for string groups looking for an alternative to a Grieg Holberg or Tchaikovsky Serenade – or indeed a piece worthy of sitting alongside either, this should certainly be considered. It is much too good to remain languishing in the shadows. Curiously, although the Symphony can be viewed on IMSLP here along with a substantial number of other Stöhr scores, this suite does not appear there.

IMSLP lists three symphonies, although the 2nd and 3rd are viewable in manuscripts of the composer’s own transcriptions for 2 pianos only. The Symphony No 1 in A minor, Op 18 can be viewed in full score. This is a substantial work – here running to 49:20 – written in the traditional four movement symphonic form with the lilting scherzo second and an Andante religioso third. There are more passing influences audible here. At the very outset there is a distinct Bruckenerian shape to both the initial brass phrase and the tremelando string accompaniments, although Bruckner would never decorate those features with the upward woodwind skirls that Stöhr uses. Interesting to read in the liner that the contemporary critical reception was fairly mixed. William Melton contributes an excellent and very extensive essay in the CD booklet which includes detailed musical analyses of both works. Certainly reading these makes clear the formal skill and structure in the work, although I did find myself agreeing with one of those early critics who suggested that perhaps the lighter more lyrical character of the accompanying Suite is where Stöhr was more naturally at home. The ‘drama’ in this symphony is effective but not wholly convincing. Also, on the larger canvas, elements of Stöhr’s essential musical conservatism seem more of a limitation. 1909 after all was the year that saw Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé started and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde completed. The structural balance of the symphony works well, but I did feel that greater concision in every movement would have resulted in a more concentrated and compelling work.

The second movement Scherzo allegro commodo is a case in point – the basic thematic material is liltingly attractive and again Melton guides the listener through the sophisticated development and transformation of this material. But at nearly thirteen minutes it feels just too long. Not that the playing by the full Sinfonia Varsovia is anything but excellent and likewise Ian Hobson’s choice of tempi, even in a completely unknown work, feels apt and intelligent. But a feature common to both works is the warmth and richness – albeit in a fairly traditional manner – of Stöhr’s orchestration. For sure, he uses his ‘standard’ double wind/four horns/three trumpets/three trombones and tuba in a manner that would have been recognisable to most late 19th century composers, but he does so effectively. To this standard orchestra he adds a pair of harps in a somewhat underwhelming manner – present but not significant. Likewise, the third movement Andante religioso includes a part for organ ad lib, which is played on this recording. Looking at the IMSLP score confirms what the innocent ear had initially suggested; the organ has little independent function except to double in some of the lines and sustain instrumental textures. Clearly the “religioso” marking intends to evoke the atmosphere of a solemn sacred procession perhaps – the orchestral brass sounding suitably burnished. This is actually rather an attractive movement which in part may be that at just 8:16 it is by some way the shortest.

The finale marked vivacissimo again invokes certain Brucknerian gestures although in more of a dancing rather than epic manner. There is an attractive dancing quality to many of the themes here and it is easy to forget that the work opened – and will end – in a resolutely minor key. Melton points to Stöhr’s use of material from the work’s opening to give the symphony a cyclical form but it also reinforces the influence of Bruckner on the work. Indeed the closing two to three minutes of the work seems to be trying to build towards one of those cumulative cathartic climaxes that the older composer made so epically his own. About a minute from the end Stöhr pauses and restarts as if realising such a final peroration is beyond him instead opting for a scurrying reiteration of the movement’s opening material that fades to nothing before one final ffz A minor chord. I must admit to not being wholly convinced by this ending.

Again, Toccata Classics have produced a disc of genuine musical interest, very well played, beautifully engineered and superbly documented. Collectors curious to discover the byways of the orchestral literature could not hope to find more convincing performances than here. My own personal reaction to encountering the music of Richard Stöhr for the first time is that his music is polished if not profound, which benefits the suite more than the symphony. Ultimately enjoyable if not revelatory music.

Nick Barnard

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