EXPLORING MUSIC: ''Highly Recommended'' Goldmark's Rustic Wedding Symphony
The MHS Review 400 VOL. 12, NO. 4 • 1988
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David M. Greene
I first encountered Goldmark's Die Landliche Hochzeit nearly 50 years ago via a recording by Howard Barlow and the CBS Symphony, whatever that body may have been. Barlow, who died in 1972 in his 70th year, was the CBS-Columbia house conductor, and was entrusted with recording offbeat works, probably for economic reasons. I doubt, however, that this particular effort was a pioneering one, since the RCA Victor numbers strongly suggest that the recording by Robert Heger, who died in 1978 in his 92nd year, preceded it. Anyhow, Barlow left me with an abiding affection for this sweet and unpretentious piece.
Karl Goldmark's life (or what we know of it) if made into a movie would probably be laughed into oblivion as wholly incredible. He was born in a Hungarian village around 1830, though the year is uncertain. His father, who sired somewhere between 12 and 20 children, worked as a notary and doubled as cantor at the local synagogue. For whatever reason, the kids did not go to school, though Karl somehow learned to read and write. A neighbor taught him the rudiments of the fiddle, and he became good enough to win a place in the music school at what was then Odenburg (now Sopron).
Somehow money enough was found to send him to Vienna to study with Leopold Jansa, court violinist and professor at the University, but it soon ran out. For a while the boy lived a literally hand-to-mouth existence. His brother Joseph, a medical student, took him in for a time, and one winter Karl, according to his memoirs, lived on cucumbers and cottage cheese. He thought of changing direction, and won acceptance to Vienna Polytech, or whatever it was called, but soon managed to switch to the Conservatory in 1847.
The uprising of 1848 brought an end to all that. Jansa, who gave a benefit for the downtrodden Hungarians in London, was exiled, Joseph hightailed it to America, the Conservatory was closed, and Karl went home, finding a post in an orchestra in Gyor. Gyor, however, was besieged by the Austrians, and when it fell, Goldmark, by some weird turn of fate, was arrested and condemned to die as a revolutionary. The story has it that the firing squad had its rifles aimed at him when a messenger galloped up and convinced their commanding officer that the youth was only a harmless fiddler.
Over the next decade he vacillated between Vienna and Budapest, managing in the process to figure out how to play piano well enough to teach it and to compose. In 1860 he decided to make a career of the latter activity and moved permanently to Vienna, where he was eventually, despite his espousal of Wagnerism and his Jewishness, accepted. He became a close friend of Brahms and was Sibelius' teacher for a time. He died in 1915 in his mid-80s, laden with honors.
His fame was largely limited to his city and his century. He reached his peak with his 1875 opera The Queen of Sheba, from which many famous singers over the years (including Caruso) have recorded excerpts. (Recently the Hungarian state recording agency made the whole thing available.) The Landliche Hochzeit ("country wedding" is closer to the flavor) appeared the next year and has remained on the fringes of the international repertoire ever since. (Among the many recordings are notable ones by Beecham and Bernstein.) The work, which is really a five-movement suite, is marked by melodic appeal, and brilliant use of the orchestra. Of his other works, his Violin Concerto has maintained a certain fame, and his second formal symphony has received a recording by Michael Halasz and the Rhenish Philharmonic, whoever they may be.
The Penguin Record Guide calls this recording of the "Rustic Wedding" "refreshing and attractive" and admires the "wide-ranging digital sound." It has some reservations about Lopez-Cobos' fast tempi, but I suspect that is all in what one is used to: I think they work quite well, and avoid the dragginess to which some versions have tended. Highly recommended.