Composers Woldemar Bargiel and William Burlingame Hill are almost totally forgotten today and there really are no important connections between them. They lived in different eras – Bargiel in the second half of the Nineteenth Century and Hill in the first half of the Twentieth Century – and in different countries; Bargiel was born in Berlin and Hill was an American based in Boston. What makes it interesting to pair these two in a review is that each man had important connections and exerted considerable influence in his personal circle of friends and students. Bargiel, for example, 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.
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 TOCC 0277 Total Time: 76:06
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 9443 Total Time: 60:42
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 which 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 backwards rather than forwards; 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 there is nothing truly memorable about his piece.
Under its principal conductor Dimitry Vasilyev, the intonation in the winds of the Siberian Symphony Orchestra (Omsk, Russia) is frequently suspect and the playing generally lacks polish. I doubt that this CD will unleash a Bargiel revival, but for those music-lovers who have wondered what kind of music Clara Schumann’s half-brother wrote, this disc may prove a treasure trove.
Although Edward Burlingame Hill’s music is rarely played today, he was a major figure during his lifetime – at least in his home town. According to program note annotator Karl Miller, and the man who was 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. Hill wrote a book on modern French music and had some interest in jazz but these musical elements are not evident in the Fourth Symphony. There is not much originality in this music and the climaxes in the first and last movements seem abrupt and 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 a few years later. Hill made use of jazz elements in some of his compositions but to my ears he never really embraced jazz music as did Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein.
Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony do what they can for Hill’s music. Pianist Anton Nel plays competently, but without much enthusiasm. After several listenings, it seemed to me that slightly faster tempi in the piano pieces might have breathed more life into them.
In spite of my reservations about the music the Austin Symphony deserves credit for unearthing little-known Americana rather than yet another rendering of the New World Symphony on its first-ever commercial recording.
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