Fuchs: Serenades Nos. 1 & 2 / Christian Ludwig, Cologne Chamber Orchestra

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Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) is best known today as the composition teacher of Mahler, Sibelius, Enesco, Korngold, Schreker, Zemlinsky, and just about everyone else who happened...

Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) is best known today as the composition teacher of Mahler, Sibelius, Enesco, Korngold, Schreker, Zemlinsky, and just about everyone else who happened to be at the Vienna Conservatory from the late 19th century onward. As a composer he earned the respect of Brahms, probably because Brahms didn't feel threatened by him, and was totally forgotten after his death. During his lifetime he was best known for his string serenades, two of which feature on this recording, along with the late (and quite substantial) Andante and Capriccio Op. 63.

Let's get straight to the point: the music is wonderful--gracious, tuneful, not a note too long, and an unalloyed delight from first note to last. Yes, it's not "heavy" or "serious", but really, who cares? If you like Dvorák's or Tchaikovsky's string serenades, or Grieg's Holberg Suite, or Sibelius' Valse triste, then you are going to love this disc. The performances are perfect: flowing, rhythmically clean and snappy, immaculately tuned, and affectionately phrased. It just doesn't get any better, and the sonics are pristine. The Viennese, of course, have always been suckers for light music, but that only made them particularly discerning. They went crazy for Fuchs. Check out this disc and find out why.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com



FUCHS Serenades: No. 1 in D; No. 2 in C. Andante grazioso and Capriccio Christian Ludwig, cond; Cologne CO NAXOS 8.572222 (53:52)

His friends called him “Serenaden-Fuchs” (Serenading Fox), a pun on his name, while the sparingly complimentary Brahms praised him as a “splendid musician.” He was Robert Fuchs (1847–1927), an Austrian composer and professor of theory and composition at the Vienna Conservatory whose students comprised an extraordinary roll-call of up-and-coming talents: Enescu, Korngold, Mahler, Melartin, Sibelius, Schmidt, Schreker, Wolf, and Zemlinsky.

As a musical genre the serenade found itself largely neglected after Mozart, at least until Brahms revived it with his two symphonic-scaled serenades in the late 1850s. Despite Mozart’s lending a greater gravity to the form, especially with his so-called “Gran Partita,” the genre continued to carry the stigma of its 18th-century antecedent as a type of lightweight, summer’s eve, al fresco entertainment, at a time when Austro-German Romanticism in particular saw itself as cultural custodian of the serious and the profound. Thus, even after Brahms’s two mid 19th-century examples, it would be another 25 years before composers would enrich the repertoire with serenades that, in content and dimensions, resembled symphonies or symphonic suites in all but name.

When Fuchs came to compose his First Serenade in 1874, his main models were the two efforts by Brahms and the three serenades by Robert Volkmann (1869–70). But by the time he got around to composing his fifth and final serenade in 1894, many masterly and magnificent serenades had already made their way into the world: Dvo?ák (1878), Tchaikovsky (1880), Strauss (1882), Wolf (1887), Suk (1892), and Elgar (1892), and not long after, Reinecke (1898); Dohnányi (1902), Sinding (1902 and 1909), Reger (several between 1904 and 1906), and Stenhammar (1913) would add to the growing list.

If the serenades had been Fuchs’s only contribution to music, it might explain why he virtually vanished from the mainstream almost immediately after his death, even though he’d been highly regarded in his own day. But the fact is that Fuchs worked in all the major musical media and his output, which included symphonies, concertos, a large volume of chamber works, three masses, and two operas, was considerable and diverse. And all of it—at least the works I’ve heard—is nothing but expertly crafted and melodically inspired.

Of Fuchs’s five serenades, the first three are scored for strings only and the fourth adds only two horns to the string ensemble. In the string-only pieces, however, textural richness is achieved through division of parts, so that for much of the time we are hearing six or even seven voices. Sometimes the violas play divided parts; other times, first or second violins are divided; and still other times violins and violas are divided at the same time. This lends both breadth and depth to the writing, allowing for greater fullness and luminosity to the sound as well as greater flexibility to the interplay of voices as they overlap and weave around each other.

As I said, if the serenades were Fuchs’s sole contribution to music, his disappearance from the scene might not be so surprising, for I will be the first to admit that these are not the stuff great reputations are made of. They were popular in their day precisely because they were the popular music of the day. As one listens to these serenades, especially their fast-paced movements, it’s easy to discern how Fuchs’s style was influenced by the polkas and quadrilles of Johann Strauss Jr., another composer, by the way, much admired by Brahms. So associating Fuchs with this type of crowd-pleasing entertainment music is not to denigrate him as a composer. His symphonies, concertos, and chamber works tell us that he was a man of both talent and substance. His serenades are tuneful, occasionally touching, and always enjoyable, reminding me in ways of some of Grieg’s orchestral music, like the Lyric Suite.

In checking all of the usual mail-order sources, I was surprised to find no complete collection of Fuchs’s five serenades. In fact, you would have to hunt down some fairly obscure labels featuring some fairly provincial ensembles to find recordings of Nos. 3 and 5, not to mention other versions besides this one of Nos. 1 and 2. And I had no luck at all finding even a single recording of No. 4. I guess I hadn’t realized when I began this review just how far Fuchs’s serenades had fallen on hard times, for the rest of his output in general is reasonably well represented on disc.

The Andante grazioso and Capriccio that concludes the disc is no insignificant filler. At 17 and a half minutes, it’s longer than the Serenade No. 2, and, written in 1900, it’s a work postdating the last of the composer’s serenades. Harmonically more advanced and complex, and emotionally darker than the serenades, the piece, suggests note author Anthony Short, is an example of Fuchs the teacher being influenced by his students, namely Sibelius.

One can only hope that this new recording of the first two serenades with the Cologne Chamber Orchestra directed by Christian Ludwig is the first in a survey that will bring us the remaining three, for in every respect the performances and recording are excellent. Strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 29, 2011

  • UPC: 747313222278

  • Catalog Number: 8572222

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: ""

  • Composer: Robert Fuchs

  • Conductor: Christian Ludwig

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Cologne Chamber Orchestra

  • Performer: Ludwig