By Dennis D. Rooney
Music of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) opened the Alantic Classical Orchestra’s final concert of this season, which I heard at its second performance April 21 at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens.
Like Schumann, Donizetti, and Smetana, Wolf was infected with syphilis and eventually made mad by it. Despite his short life, he managed to compose more than 300 songs and two operas before his death in an insane asylum. He also left orchestral works, but only one of them has endured in the repertoire: the Italian Serenade; originally composed for string quartet in 1887 and given its name in 1890. Wolf arranged it for string orchestra in 1892, but it was not heard until a Vienna performance in 1904, almost one year after the composer’s death.
With its zestful mixture of high spirits tempered by ironic humor, the Italian Serenade has long been a popular opener in both its quartet and string orchestra versions. David Amado, in his fourth season as ACO’s music director, led a spirited and graceful performance save for some shaky intonation at a couple of early transitions.
Cellist Oliver Herbert was soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme (Op. 33), one of several works in which he sought to capture the aesthetic spirit of the 18th century. When he began it in 1876, the composer sought advice from Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Fitzenhagen (1848-1890), cello professor at the Moscow Conservatory and performer of all the composer’s works employing cello. Fitzenhagen was the dedicate of the Rococo Variations. After the work’s premiere in Moscow late that year, Fitzenhagen suggested that Tchaikovsky give him the autograph in the belief that a German publication would increase sales.
Fitzenhagen made substantial changes to the original score, which included excising an entire variation. With that version, Fitzenhagen introduced the work in Germany, scoring a triumph at the 1879 Music Festival at Wiesbaden. Upon hearing it, Franz Liszt exclaimed: “Finally! some real music.” In that form, it was published by Jurgenson, with Tchaikovsky’s apparent assent. Although several Soviet scholars revived the composer’s original version in the 1940s (using X-rays on the autograph to discover what lay beneath Fitzenhagen’s pasted-in changes), the “revised” version has continued to be preferred by most cellists who have performed and recorded it.
Herbert, a pupil of Carter Brey, Clive Greensmith, and Peter Wiley, played expressively, with a lovely warm tone from his Guadagnini “ex-Janigro” instrument. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but he played the bravura passages most impressively and his tone always nourished the lyric passages.
Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony (No. 4 in A, Op. 90) concluded the program after intermission. Although officially known as his Fourth Symphony, it is his third such work to be composed. The sunny atmosphere, joie de vivre and rhythmic grace of the first movement Allegro vivace, distilling a particularly German attraction to the South, has attained instant recognizability. The Andante con moto recalls a procession of pilgrims that Mendelssohn saw in Naples. The solemn tread of the opening gives way to an episode in a more tripping, slyly mischievous style.
A Moderato con moto takes the place of the expected scherzo. It is not humorous, but rather a beautifully graceful melody punctuated by horn calls. Mendelssohn employs a saltarello, a hopping dance that originated in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries, for the Presto finale, setting it in A minor, in which key it ends, without a hint of melancholy.
Balance problems were audible throughout the performance. Overprominent horns and trumpets in the opening movement, which also lacked the sinuous grace it should have instead of an odd rectilinear character in the phrasing. The remaining movements went better, although more care in woodwind intonation would have been welcome. Divided violins assisted in clarifying string textures, and the finale built to a rousing conclusion.