Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Friedrich Kuhlau: Flute Quintets, Nos 1-3, Op. 51

This was an in-store purchase from Tower Records some twenty plus years back and it can't be recalled why this recording caught YHB's eye, other than that there was some curiosity about what a flute quintet would sound like to a rank amateur just getting into so-called classical music.

Well, listening to this outstanding Naxos recording was a revelation, both in terms of the fine playing by soloist Eyvind Rafn and the string quartet of Lars Holm Johansen on cello, Kim Sjogren on violin and violists Georg Svendsen Andersen and Bjarne Boye Rasmussen as well as in Kuhlau's sure and gorgeous compositions.

The little-known Kuhlau was regarded in his time as a master of the piano as a performer and composer, but was also viewed "as the Beethoven of the flute" as a composer for (though not a performer on) that light, airy and highly expressive instrument.  In Denmark, where he lived most of this adult life, he wrote the music for Elves' Hill, believed to be the first Danish national play and his "King Christian Stood by the Towering Mast" became the royal anthem.

Born in a town near Hanover, Germany in 1786 to a father who was an oboist in the military (as were Kuhlau's uncle and grandfather) and who tutored his son initially on the flute, Kuhlau studied the piano and composition in Hamburg and began a performing career, unaffected by the loss on his right eye in a childhood accident.

When Napoleon conquered a good deal of Europe and Kuhlau discovered he was going to be dragooned into the emperor's army, he left for Denmark, which had not been seized by the French.  He soon became a favorite in his adopted country, to the extent that he was later regarded as a Danish performer and composer.  He became the royal court musician and wrote for the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, earning a handsome sum for his well-regarded work.

Despite his high income, he was a poor money manager and also had to take care of a sister and his parents, so he was continually churning out work for a music publisher who paid on order for Kuhlau's pieces.  Among Danish composers, he has the largest body of published work.

In early 1831, a fire erupted in his home and destroyed a great many manuscripts and this catastrophe proved disastrous for a man whose health was always spotty and whose parents had died the previous year.  Just over a year following the conflagration, in March 1832, Kuhlau died in Copenhagen, at age 45.

These three works were believed to have been written in 1823 and issued in Germany.  The first quintet, in D major, has a famed second movement theme and another well-known (and slower) third movement melodic statement on the violin, but the entire piece is fantastic, including the stunning finale, and reflects what liner note writer Mogens Wenzel Andreasen describes as "the musical language is elegant and gallant, but has about it something of the ruggedness of Beethoven, a testament to Kuhlah's admiration for that composer."  In fact, the influence of Mozart and Haydn also seems present to this untutored ear.

The second quintet, in E major, has a slower, more contemplative melodic theme that is highly romantic and stunning.  The third movement has a lighter touch and is beautifully rendered, as is the highly romantic finale.  By contrast, the third quintet, in A major has a powerful opening movement and a second movement that, the liners tell us, takes into account Kuhlau's great interest in folk music.

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