Hartmann / Milhaud / Poulenc / Casadesus

J. E. HARTMANN: Symphony No. 1 in D. Symphony No. 2 in G. Symphony No. 3 in D. Symphony No. 4 in G.
Concerto Copenhagen/Lars Ulrik Mortensen, harpsichord/conductor
cpo 777 060 (F) (DDD) TT: 51:25

POULENC: Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra. MILHAUD: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra. CASADESUS: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Op. 17.
Genova & Dimitrov piano duo; SWR Rundfunkorchester Kaiserslautern/Alun Francis, cond.
cpo 999 992 (F) (DDD) TT: 54:14

The surprise here, a most pleasing one, is the surviving music of Johann Ernst Hartmann the Elder (1726-1793), a native of the Duchy of Plön in Holsten, who moved to Copenhagen in 1762 – permanently in 1766 as a member of the Royal Orchestra, whose music director he became the next year. He is credited with “inventing” the indigenous Danish Singspiel – one of which yielded what continues to be the royal anthem. In 1784 he become director of Copenhagen’s Harmonic Society, which had its own hall and an orchestra larger and better than the Royal. Tragically, on the basis of what little has survived, most of his creative library was destroyed in the Christiansborg Palace fire of 1794, a year after Hartmann’s death. The only symphony ever published was No. 1on this disc, compact and sprightly in a style somewhere between Baroque and Haydn. A puckish vein runs throughout the other works, and a total mastery of craft that make these durable as well as charming works. Adding to the pleasure are performances by the Concerto Copenhagen, known throughout Scandinavia as “CoCo” and respected as the Nordic countries’ best period-instrument ensemble. Lars Ulrik Mortensen has led them from the harpsichord since 1999 in performances as spirited as the music. cpo has recorded everything just about perfectly – credit producer-editor Thilo Reinhard and engineer Andreas Johnson – in Copenhagen’s Garnisons Kirche. This church venue looks like a miniature Concertgebouw from the picture on the back cover of the program book, which has texts in German, English, French, and of course Danish. Recommended, and not just for period lovers.

The disc of French duo-piano concertos, however, is a mixed bag musically as well as problematic in the performance arena. The best work by a furlong remains Poulenc’s D minor Concerto from 1932 (the same year that Robert Casadesus wrote his Op. 17 to play with wife Gaby), but it is the one least persuasively interpreted by the Bulgarian duo of Aglika Genova and Liuben Dimitrov, both of Greek heritage, who rush the first movement despite the marking Allegro ma non troppo (two minutes faster than the composer and Jacques Février in their definitive EMI version of 1962 conducted by Georges Prètre), and in the finale tend to clip notes as if everything were marked staccato. It doesn’t help that the SWR Orchestra of Kaiserlautern is one of Germany’s minorest radio orchestras, or that Alun Francis is a busy but mid-level conductor currently operating in Mexico City, Zagreb, and Thuringia. Everyone does better by Milhaud’s 1942 diatonic concerto, but this is one of the prolific composer’s rote-works until the finale, with Latin-Americanisms that recall better works from his past (Saudades do Brasil, et al.). The Casadesus Concerto has the virtue of compositional professionalism, but lacks melodic as well as harmonic individuality – a French genre-piece, in other words, from the era between World Wars in Europe. As for the Duo Genova & Dimitrov, I’d like to hear them in two-piano music by Stravinsky, even in Morton Gould’s Dance Variations. By no means are they negligible artists – just miscast in Poulenc (or perhaps in need of better partnering) and elsewhere at the mercy of music missing an infusion of inspiration.

R.D. (February 2005)