2 Recordings Pull Composers From History’s Shadow

Music director Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony Orchestra recorded works by Edward Burlingame Hill. (ASO)


Woldemar Bargiel (1828-1897): Complete Orchestral Music Volume One. Symphony in C major, Op. 30; Prometheus Overture, Op. 16; Overture to a Tragedy, Op. 18; Medea Overture, Op. 22. Siberian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dmitry Vasilyev. Toccata Classics.

Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960): Symphony No. 4. Divertimento for Piano and Orchestra, Concertino No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra, Concertino No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra (Premiere Recordings of all Works). Anton Nel, piano. Austin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Bay. Bridge Records.

By Paul E. Robinson
A Bargiel revival is unlikely despite the release of this CD.

DIGITAL REVIEW — Composers Woldemar Bargiel and Edward Burlingame Hill are nearly forgotten today, and there are no connections between them. They lived in different eras (Bargiel in the second half of the 19th century and Hill in the first half of the 20th) and in different countries (Bargiel in Berlin and Hill in Boston.)

What makes it interesting to pair these two in a review is that each man had important associations in his personal circle of friends and students. Bargiel was Clara Schumann’s half-brother, studied with Moscheles and Gade, and taught Leo Blech and Leopold Godowsky. Hill studied with Widor and taught Bernstein, Piston, Sessions, and Carter. One could argue that, although Bargiel and Hill were both journeyman composers, their musical pedigrees were significant.

Bargiel's Symphony in C, its 4-note motive apparent. (4-hand arrangement via imslp.org)
Bargiel’s Symphony in C, in two-piano version, shows the prevailing motive. (imslp.org)

Bargiel’s Symphony in C major dates from 1864, and its opening movement is based almost entirely on the rhythm of the familiar four-note idea that opens Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Imitating or even paying homage to a figure like Beethoven is dangerous territory for a young composer and Bargiel falls far short. It was rather late in the day for a German symphonist to be writing a “Menuett” rather than a “Scherzo” movement, but that is what Bargiel does in his symphony. This choice is one sign among many that Bargiel preferred to look backward rather than forward; the last movement Allegro molto, for example, would have fit nicely into one of the early Schubert symphonies.

The three Bargiel overtures are really symphonic poems since they are complete in themselves. In the Overture to a Tragedy there are clear indications that Bargiel was influenced by both Liszt and Schumann, but nothing in his piece is truly memorable.  The Overture to Prometheus gets bogged down in some Beethovenian huffing and puffing but the Overture to Medea has a genuinely tragic atmosphere and a powerful ending.

Under principal conductor Dimitry Vasilyev, the intonation in the winds of the Siberian Symphony Orchestra (Omsk, Russia) is frequently inaccurate and the playing generally lacks polish. I doubt this CD will unleash a Bargiel revival, but for those who have wondered what kind of music Clara Schumann’s half-brother wrote, this disc may prove a treasure trove. And since this CD is labeled Volume One, there is even more to come.

Whatever one thinks about Bargiel’s music, the man who put this project together deserves enormous credit for his untiring promotion of forgotten music. Martin Anderson founded Toccata Classics in 2005 and the label has issued dozens of CDs of music that has never been recorded. Through his Toccata Press, Anderson has also published many fine books on music. He was recently recognized for his efforts by Musical America in 2014 as one of its MA 30 Profiles in Courage.

The Austin Symphony premiered Hill’s Symphony No. 4 in 2013.

Although Hill’s music is rarely played today, he was a major figure during his lifetime — at least in his home town of Boston. According to program annotator Karl Miller, the driving force behind this recording, “between the years of 1916 and 1949, the Boston Symphony Orchestra played his music on eighty-five occasions!” Former Hill student Leonard Bernstein recorded his Prelude for Orchestra in 1953, but Hill performances or recordings after that date are few and far between.

Hill’s Symphony No. 4 (1940-41) had its premiere performance on June 1, 2013, with Peter Bay conducting the Austin Symphony. The piece, about 30 minutes long, is stylistically very conservative. Although Hill wrote a book on modern French music and had some interest in jazz, these musical elements are not evident in the Fourth Symphony. There is not much originality in this music and the abrupt climaxes in the first and last movements are unconvincing.

The three works for piano and orchestra on this CD, each about ten minutes in length, come across as sketches for concerto movements rather than pieces complete in themselves. Coming from a man who had studied in depth the music of Ravel, Debussy, and Poulenc, these works are surprisingly bland. Undoubtedly, Hill appreciated the greatness of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto of 1930, but there is no indication that he was influenced by it in these two concertinos written only a few years later. While Hill did make use of jazz elements in some of his compositions, he never really embraced jazz music as did Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein.

Bay and the Austin Symphony do what they can for Hill’s music. Pianist Anton Nel plays competently, but without much evident enthusiasm. Slightly faster tempos in the piano pieces might have breathed more life into them.

This is the Austin Symphony’s first commercial recording and the organization is to be commended for choosing little-known Americana rather than yet another version of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Austin is known as the “Live Music Capital of the World” but it earned that title on the strength of the explosion of pop music that happens every March during SXSW, or the South by Southwest Festival.

The Austin Symphony, founded in 1911, is the oldest orchestra in the state, and a very good one. It also has a history of balancing its budgets. This goes hand in hand with somewhat conservative programming but music director Peter Bay still manages to do Mahler and Bruckner, not to mention Nielsen, Szymanowski and Takemitsu. The orchestra also showed its pro-active side in using the Kickstarter program to raise money for the Hill recording.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster, and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.


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