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Butterworth, Stephan: The End of Time - Abdullah

Butterworth, Stephan: The End of Time - Abdullah

Coviello Classics  COV 91418

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


George Butterworth (1885-1916): Two English Idylls (1911); A Shropshire Lad (1912); The Banks of the Green Willow (1913)
Rudi Stephan (1887-1915): Music for 7 string instruments (1911); Music for orchestra (1912)

Ensemble Aix
Sinfonieorchester Aachen
Kazem Abdullah


The German Rudi Stephan and Briton George Butterworth both died around the age of 30 in the first world war, before they could complete their predicted by experts brilliant career. At the threshold of modernity both found their own way of musical expression: Stephan in wild expressiveness, Butterworth in rather quiet, almost other-worldly melancholy.

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Review by John Miller - November 19, 2014

Considerable thought seems to have gone into this recording, and its attractively designed cover picture has more than superficial relevance to the music and its originators. Wilhelm Schnarrenberger (1892-1966) painted the original of the desolate "Winter Landscape in the Black Forest" in 1941 at the height of the Second World War. He was one of the many German artists named as " entartet" (degenerate) by the Nazis and excluded from the usual artistic life. His painting captures the hopelessness of wartime which musically engaged the two composers of this issue.

George Butterworth (1885-1916) and Rudi Stephan (1887-1915) were inclined to music in their respective childhoods and both began successful musical careers. Butterworth joined Ralph Vaughan Williams in collecting hundreds of English Folk Songs, invaluable material for their compositions. Meanwhile, Rudi Stephan had some of his compositions played by the Berlin Philharmonic when he was 26. Turning to Opera, he was acclaimed as the most talented German composer of his generation. Stylistically, both composers were inclined to combine late Romanticism with Modernism in their own ways, mindful of their peers such as Brahms, Delius, Debussy, Korngold, R. Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and early Berg, but it hardly worth pursuing such influences as both composers have very personal voices. As composers they also wrote to very high standards, thus publishing (or leaving in MS) only a comparatively small number of pieces.

The onset of World War 1 in 1914 changed the lives of both Butterworth and Stephan. At the age of 29, Butterworth volunteered for military service and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. The phrase "The End of Time" was in the mind of many a soldier mired in a landscape of artillery scars, barbed wire, trenches and bodies. Butterworth died in the Battle of the Somme at the age of 29 in 1916. Stephan too was moved by nationalism to enter the war, and served in the German Imperial Army at the Galician Eastern Front. He was killed with a bullet to the brain in 1915 at the age of 28.

Butterworth was posthumously regarded as a hero. His few orchestral pieces, with poetic titles, and a song cycle, several songs and chamber works have become classics of English music. Stephan, however, was one of the "loosing side", so perversely even his relatively small number of works passed nearly into oblivion post-war. Very few recordings have been made of them.

Presumably, American conductor Kazem Abdullah was at least partly responsible for this inspired programming. He is said to be one of the most watched up-and-coming talents on the international stage today. Since 2012 he has been Generalmusikdirektor of the ancient City of Aachen, Germany, where he leads both the orchestral and operatic seasons. His predecessors in this tradition-rich post include Fritz Busch, Herbert von Karajan, and Wolfgang Sawallisch. He and his orchestra, Symfoniorchester Aachen, seem to have taken both Butterworth's and Stephan's infrequently played music to their hearts on the evidence of this disc..

Sir Adrian Boult is credited as the primary interpretor of Butterworth's orchestral music, giving noble and radiant performances of these lovely pieces, but others such as Barbirolli and Elder have also produced esteemed recordings, to which I would now add Abdullah's. His delicate, transparent first English Idyll has a magically soft opening, which sets a landscape for the entrance of the oboe's three folk songs, and they are played by excellent wind soloists. Abdullah ensures that Butterworth's instruction of "scherzando" truly suggests the playfulness and jauntily relaxed phrasing of the oboes chattering with the other . Butterworth's second Idyll has only one folk tune and is more seriously romantic. The Aachen orchestra touchingly and caressingly echo its rolling variations with as English an atmosphere as could be.

'A Shropshire Lad - Rhapsody' (1912) is shot through with nostalgia about the country life that used to be and the dark prospects of the future, using two songs from Butterworth's song cycle 'A Shropshire Lad' (Shropshire is a rural county in the middle of England). It has a magically soft opening, with a true ppp dynamic for the divided strings (hushed but saturated). Not even Boult managed that. This sets the scene of misty landscapes which opens up glorious orchestral climaxes, bursting with pride but then tempered with lingering expressions of loss. The Aachen horns are magnificent in their rural calls.

The 'Banks of Green Willow - Idyll' (1913) provides more rural vistas, starting with a catchy folk tune which insinuates itself in various guises. Its charms are impossible to resist, as are the distant landscape evocations from which wisps of folk tune emerge, leading to more celebratory episodes. Again, the sensitivity of the orchestra's playing and taut direction are exemplary.

Abdullah's introduction to Rudi Stephan's music begins with the most original of his few chamber works. 'Music for Seven Instruments' (1911) is played by members of the orchestra as "Ensemble Aix", comprising string quartet with bass, harp and piano. It is in two movements, "Very calmly" and the shorter "Nachspiel". Rather than write in a particular well-established musical form, Stephan's style is organic, with chains of moods and tone colours, often deeply emotional and highly lyrical, intermixed by more modern harmonies. The music is gripping, and even without cues as to where the music is going, the listener is captivated, informed and deeply involved. Ensemble Aix traverse this work as if they had played it many times, with wide dynamics and beautifully controlled speeds.

'Music for Orchestra' (1912) is another "grey" title; Stephan couldn't be bothered with romantic or poetic titles. This may be one reason for the paucity of interest in his music. Abdullah has chosen the second version of this piece, much altered from the first. It too ranges through a whole series of moods and aural visions. His aesthetic suggests the German 'art nouveau', or Jugendstil, which stressed the organic form which featured once more in this work. Listen again for Stephan's dazzling orchestration, brilliantly balanced by Abdullah, with the brass particularly to be praised.

Coviello's fine recording, a natural concert perception, appears to have been made from live performances, as the joyous brilliance of the last few bars of 'Music for Orchestra' is greeted by well-deserved applause, which is quite quickly faded out. Not a sound can be heard from the audience otherwise. The Eurogress Hall in Aachen is a touch on the dry side for orchestral concerts, but gives the band sufficient bloom - provided you play with the volume quite markedly up from your normal level. The septet is more intimate, with the varied timbres coming through splendidly, especially the low register of the piano, which is sometimes boosted by the harp and bass in the darker music.

This is an enterprising, attractive and eloquent programme, excellently produced with extensive notes in German and English, artistically designed as attractively as usual with Coviello Classics. Hopefully we will hear some more of Rudi Stephan's work, and advocacy as powerful as Kazem Abdullah's might bring that to fruition. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2014 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Review by John Broggio - February 1, 2015

I must agree with Geo's review - this is an excellent disc and very poignant given all the many commemorative events currently taking place.

The Two English Idylls (1911) of Butterworth that open this programme of music are delivered with real style that would lead listeners to (wrongly) assume the provenance of all the musicians, so well honed is their portrayal of Butterworths unique sound world. The innocent chatter of the opening woodwind in the first, gives way to a climax that is quickly undermined by the "buzzing" lower strings. The Aachen players in Abdullah's clearly capable hands have clearly put on their musical "bowler hats" and all are naturally convinced of Butterworth's oeuvre. The gentle handling of the winding down of the first Idyll is a joy to the soul. The second Idyll flows with complete grace and sophistication; whatever troubles were stirring in the world at the time barely register in the score and the conducting & playing allows us to bask in a carefree world.

A Shropshire Lad (1912) comes next and is the most substantial offering that Abdullah presents from Butterworth. The uncertain, questioning musical opening is most sensitively handled and is built persuasively into a climax that temporarily subsides until the yearning music again spills over in a passionate outburst. Throughout, the Aachen players in Abdullah's hands keep their heads, there is no hint of vulgarity. The ending is handled with assured playing so that the listener is left hanging on with uncertainty.

The last (and latest, 1913) piece from Butterworth, The Banks of Green Willow, opens with sheer sunny delight. The use of antiphonal violins here richly rewards the listener and the unmistakable imprint of the sea permeates the score from great swells of orchestral colour to chamber textures of the harp accompanying a solo flute. The playing and recording convincingly showcase this kaleidoscopic score and the unlikely sweetness of the coda sounds appropriately hollow.

A change of composer & scale then occurs with two movements of "Music for 7 string instruments", 1911, which comprise: string quartet, double bass, harp & piano. While aspects of Ravel & Debussy are audible, there is insistent treatment of the musical material that is not of either composer. Unlike the scoring, there is nothing small scale in musical ambition about this work & the performers (almost all principals in Sinfonieorchester Aachen) make a very fine & impassioned case for this music; it certainly rewards repeated listening.

Closing the disc is Stephan's "Music for orchestra" of 1912. Perhaps appropriately, the opening is foreboding and the glimmers of orchestral light are intially unsettling. Near the 3 minute mark, there is a marked change of mood, with an urgency not heard elsewhere on this disc in the music. As before, Abdullah & his orchestra play superbly and (as with many relatively youthful works) it is fun to play "spot the influence"! At no point does Abdullah let the narrative of this music sag and his accomplishment, along with that of his players, suggests we should hope to hear a lot more from this partnership in future.

The applause at the end of the "Music for orchestra" acknowledges the concert provenance of the orchestral recordings (there is only applause at the very end of the disc). Although the Eurogress Aachen (orchestral) & Orchesterprobenraum Aachen (chamber) are not perhaps the very finest venues known to the recording world in terms of ambience, there is no doubt that the timbre of the instruments are very faithfully captured. It is uncertain whether the engineering team or the superb performances contribute to a lack of audience "participation" during the music - suffice to say, until that final applause, after a short pause, one would not otherwise have known.

A very touching & involving memento; enthusiastically recommended.

Copyright © 2015 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

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