Hans Huber (1852-1921)
Eine Lustspielouvertüre (1879)
Sommernächte – erste Serenade (1884)
Winternächte – zweite Serenade (1895)
Römischer Carneval – humoreske (1877-1879)
Sinfonie Orchester Biel Solothurn/Yannis Pourpourikas
rec. 2022, Yehudi Menuhin Forum, Bern
Schweizer Fonogramm SF0014 
It was Orson Welles who came up with the most memorable lines in Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Welles may not have been entirely accurate, for, as the aggrieved Swiss authorities subsequently pointed out, cuckoo clocks actually originated in Bavaria’s Black Forest. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to say that most people’s knowledge of Swiss history and culture remains somewhat sketchy. Making that very point, in a recent MusicWeb review, my colleague Gary Higginson invented a game that he called “Name six significant Swiss composers”. Contestants, he speculated, would probably come up with Frank Martin and Arthur Honneger and, although he thought that some of the better informed might add Fritz Brun or Peter Mieg to the list, he implied that thereafter almost everyone would be completely stumped. I must, however, beg to differ. Thanks not least to Bo Hyttner’s enterprising Sterling label that continually unearths obscure but fascinating orchestral works from the Romantic era, I suspect that I won’t be the only one yelling “Hans Huber!” at the quizmaster faster than the speed of a bolt fired from William Tell’s crossbow.
Huber actually made that particular legendary 14th century folk hero the subject of his first symphony and then, during the next four decades, went on to write seven more, with subtitles including Heroic, Academic, Swiss and Spring. All have been recorded for Sterling by the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jörg-Peter Weigl and, in the form of a complete boxed set, have been reviewed for MusicWeb by my colleagues Rob Barnett, Dave Billinge and Jonathan Woolf. While Jonathan quite rightly considered Huber’s symphonic oeuvre as “the core of his contribution to the music of his native Switzerland”, neither he nor his fellow reviewers found much in the way of sheer originality in the music. However, while he was no trailblazer, Huber was undeniably accomplished in following or – let’s be generous – paralleling paths set by others and our eminent trio came up with a strikingly eclectic list of other composers whose names popped into their minds as they listened to his music. Their fanciful nominations included, among others, Beethoven, Berlioz, Berwald, Brahms, Brun, Dvorak, Elgar, Glazunov, Goldmark, Grieg, Mahler, Mozart, Ludolf Nielsen, Raff, Reger, Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saëns, Schoeck, Schumann, Smetana, Stanford, Richard Strauss, Suk, Tchaikovsky and Siegfried Wagner.
This new disc from the Sinfonie Orchester Biel Solothurn and its recently appointed Chief Director Yannis Pourpourikas usefully allows us to explore some of Huber’s output beyond the symphonies, thereby acquainting or reacquainting ourselves with a few interesting and, as it turns out, rather attractive works. Both Eine Lustspielouvertüre and Sommernächte – erste Serenade were actually included as fillers to discs in the Stuttgart Philharmonic symphony cycle and so, with those performances available as comparisons, I will focus on them first of all.
The overture derives from Huber’s earliest years as a composer and is the only surviving element of the incidental music he wrote to accompany Rudolf Kelterborn’s play Die Lotusblume. Thanks to its light-hearted tone, on first acquaintance it can appear a straightforward piece. In reality, however, it’s a cleverly accomplished composition that effectively alternates boisterousness and lyricism while simultaneously demonstrating the composer’s undeniable ability to come up with a memorable tune or two on demand. Rob, with his characteristic knack of coining a striking image, found it “very attractive: calming but also with the slaloming vigour of Schumann’s Rhenish”. Meanwhile, Dave considered it “appropriately jolly and very listenable” and Jonathan responded positively to its “robust, yet still Grieg-like quotient”. While the older Stuttgart/Weigl recording is undeniably enjoyable, it is, I think, superseded by this new one. While there’s only a marginal difference in overall timings, the new Biel Solothurn/Pourpourikas performance sounds just that little bit more free-flowing and lighter on its feet – an approach that effectively brings out its occasional elements of Mendelssohn-like delicacy. Appreciation is further enhanced by a rather brighter, more transparent recording that proves to be a consistently pleasing feature of this disc.
After their positive responses to the overture, Dave and Rob were less taken with the Sommernächte serenade. Though both found the Stuttgart performances effective, they were clearly uninspired by the music itself, with Dave limiting his praise to its second movement scherzo (“an attractive bubbly piece… markedly the best”) and Rob atypically avoiding expressing an opinion on the score altogether. Jonathan, on the other hand, was far more enthusiastic and considered the whole piece “a delightful affair, where the wind writing is deliciously dexterous, and where hints of Brahms are never too far away”. On this occasion, I’m at one with Jonathan, for I enjoyed the piece a great deal. Once again, Huber produces a constant stream of wonderfully felicitous material. It’s in the generally lyrical vein that you might expect from a piece designated as “summer nights”, though that title certainly shouldn’t be taken as an indication that the music is invariably slow or dreamy. Much of it is, in fact, quite propulsive and there are some passages that are surprisingly assertive, though there’s never anything that’s likely to frighten the horses. I can quite see why Dave was so taken with the brief, skittish scherzo, but the third movement nocturne is also very effective and both outer movements are really pretty good too. Once again, I find the new Biel Solothurn/Pourpourikas performance rather more appealing than its predecessor, for it exhibits a winning lightness of touch that feels more appropriate to the piece. Meanwhile, the combination of finely-nuanced orchestral balance and sonic transparency draws valuable attention to some interesting musical strands that were occasionally hard to discern in the slightly more opaque Stuttgart account.
After the inclusion of its performance of Sommernächte, the Sterling cycle’s failure to include what one might reasonably have imagined to be a companion piece – Huber’s second serenade, Winternächte (“winter nights”) – seems, at first sight, somewhat odd. In fact, however, belying their parallel titles, the two pieces are by no means indivisible twins. The composer actually differentiates them quite markedly in both structure and presentation. Whereas Sommernächte has four movements with no indication of particular subject matters, Winternächte has five, each of which has a precise illustrative title. The main similarity between the two pieces is, in fact, a negative one, for Huber notably avoids musical cliché in both. Just as Sommernächte eschews anything much in the way of languorous summer dreaminess, there’s nothing in the way of bleak, icy chilliness in Winternächte You’d swear, for instance, that the latter’s opening Pastorale movement must have been intended as a gently bucolic depiction of the countryside in spring or summer, while its concluding Carneval is far too lively to suggest that its jollifications might be taking place in a metre of slushy January snowdrift. The other movements, including a skittish Spinnlied and a rather moving Legende, similarly lack seasonal specificity, but undeniably add to the overall attractiveness of the whole piece, which, by the way, is once again very well played and recorded throughout. Perhaps we may conclude that Huber’s intention in both Sommernächte and Winternächte was less to depict the climatic characteristics of the respective nights themselves than to illustrate the wealth of activities that the Swiss get up to under their enveloping cover? While both the Sterling and Schweizer Fonogramm booklet notes remain silent on the point, I think that the suggestion offers as good an explanation as any other.
Another piece that was not included on the Sterling discs was Römischer Carneval (“Roman carnival”), characterised by the composer as a humoresque for large orchestra inspired by the German poet and novelist Joseph Victor Scheffel. Huber – or perhaps his publishers – prefaced the published score with a few verses. Ostensibly describing masked Roman revellers lobbing roses and violets at attractive targets in the hope of establishing a romantic connection (That hit – lucky! Her eye flashes – Keep throwing – You will win!), they conclude with a final stanza that suggests a deeper, comforting meaning – that even the longest-lasting of life’s sadnesses and sufferings can be relieved, if only temporarily, when they are “showered with flowers”. Whereas Winternächte’s Swiss carnival had gone at a jolly old lick (allegro molto vivace), the Roman version (im Walzertempo) is a more controlled, even genteel affair. Huber clearly considered that the Italian middle classes’ version of a fun day out was somewhat more refined than that of the Swiss peasantry. Once again, the performance – which happens to be a world premiere recording – is quite delightful.
As you may well have already gathered, I have been very impressed by conductor Yannis Pourpourikas and his Sinfonie Orchester Biel Solothurn. The Swiss band is not one that I had encountered before but back in 2016, Rob Barnett found them “more than equal to the task of advocating [Robert Radecke’s orchestral works]… persuasively”, while, a few years later, Jonathan Woolf thought that their recordings of Joseph Lauber’s first two symphonies were “deftly played”. In fairness, I ought to note that the orchestra’s performances in Mozart have come in for some withering criticism from Ralph Moore, but I’m pleased to say that none of the negative points which so irked him on that occasion characterise this new Huber release.
I do, however, have a small quibble about the disc’s presentation. Schweizer Fonogramm has packaged this release in a gatefold-format case made of stiff cardboard, but, on this occasion, something seems to have gone wrong in the manufacturing process. When the cardboard unfolds horizontally into three sections, one of them incorporates a pocket into which you’re presumably supposed to slide the booklet. Unfortunately, however, it is simply too small – or else the booklet itself is slightly too large. That leaves you with no alternative but to store the unsecured booklet inside the refolded cardboard, from which, I can assure you, it will repeatedly and annoyingly fall out onto the floor every time you pick up the CD. And, while I’m at it, couldn’t the graphic designers have come up with a more attractive cover image? Reference to the Schweizer Fonogramm website comes up with several examples of composers depicted in old black-and-white photographs in which they’re seen going about their daily routines. The three images featuring Joseph Lauber, for instance, picture him taking an alpine hike, standing in front of a municipal building of some sort (banking his royalties? paying a speeding fine?) and, most charmingly of all, burning weeds on his allotment. Presumably we are meant to conclude that even practitioners of high art are “men of the people” and just as human as the rest of us. However, unfortunately for poor old Huber, he’s been memorialised by a particularly fuzzy shot where, having kitted himself out in his Sunday best, he’s seen desperately puffing on his last Woodbine – not, I imagine, the most beguiling image that Schweizer Fonogramm’s marketing team could have possibly found.
If you are already familiar with Hans Huber’s symphonies, you may well think that you know the composer pretty well. Even so, it would be well worth listening to this new CD, for if, for example, you’ve only heard Sommernächte as a filler to a disc of symphonies, you may well have been approaching it from something of an inappropriate direction. Huber’s characteristically relaxed and lighter pieces such as Sommernächte and the others on this discare not cut from the same cloth as his longer, more ambitious works. As a result, when listened to in a “symphonic” context they may appear in some way diminished, or even as an insipid imitation of something that they are not, in fact, actually aspiring to be. That same point is stressed by the writers of both booklet notes as they seek to differentiate Huber’s lighter output from his more ambitious work. As Sterling’s Dominik Sackmann points out, “composers often associated the performance of serenades with the desire for immediate understanding from audiences … and with an aspiration to a rapid rise in popularity. Although they were closely related to the modern, absolute symphonic music of the period, these serenades clearly eschewed the ideological messages of which the symphony was then regarded as the bearer [my own emphases]”. In similar vein, Schweizer Fonogramm’s David Rossel observes that “the two Huber serenades could be understood as experiments, at a high level compositionally, but still lacking the psychological weight of the symphonic works to follow [my own emphasis]”.
Sterling’s enterprising work has already provided convenient and most welcome access to Huber’s ambitious and occasionally impressive symphonic output. As Messrs. Sackmann and Rossel rightly observe, however, the pieces included on this new Schweizer Fonogramm release were written to serve an entirely different purpose and are consequently best listened to in an appropriate context and in, as it were, their own right. That is how they are presented here in a series of carefully idiomatic, well played and expertly recorded performances. As such, this welcome new release becomes an essential listen for anyone caring to explore Swiss culture beyond the clichés of William Tell, brotherly love and cuckoo clocks.
Availability: Schweizer Fonogramm