ARS Produktion—Presenting Forgotten Treasures
von Michael Carter
There was a time when, if you were to enter a music shop that sold classical music and searched for a recording by an obscure contemporary of Bach or Mozart, Zelenka or Krommer, for example, you would probably strike out. The reason was that those composers weren’t well known enough, or the public wasn’t interested enough to warrant a company spending the time, effort, and money to record their works. At least, that’s what you would have been told. Now, all you need to do is flip through a copy of Fanfare, and chances are you’ll find not only Zelenka and Krommer recordings, but also those of many other composers whose names you probably won’t recognize either. What has happened is that the concert-going public has expanded its consciousness about repertoire. It still enjoys the staples of the classical repertoire, but it has begun to yearn for something new, fresh, and unfamiliar. This has generally become the turf of what we in the music industry refer to as the “Indie” or independent labels, most of which are based in Europe. Some of them release a few hundred CDs each year, while others produce considerably less than that, not necessarily because of monetary constraints, but simply because they are extremely selective about both the artists and repertoire they choose to record. One such label is ARS Produktion, headquartered in Ratingen, Germany, and distributed in the United States by Qualiton Imports, Ltd. ARS Produktion was founded in 1987 by Annette Schumacher, and has risen to an envied position of prominence in the classical-music industry. This is because, as Ms. Schumacher recently told me in an interview for this article, “We have a desire and willingness to offer young, ambitious musicians and interesting concert programs, along with international distribution and marketing.” Schumacher’s label is also one to which sound is one of the most important considerations. She stressed, “We try to do justice to the sound requirements of each work, period, and instrument, using the latest and best technology. The exciting part,” she added, “is the creative way the sound engineer and musicians work together. The editing process involves the conductor, soloist (if there is one), and the engineer.” It may seem a bit odd that, given the world economic situation, that ARS Produktion continues to crawl out on the proverbial financial limb, but Ms. Schumacher added, “Everything must be manageable [and] the financial risk of each project must be calculable. We also look for private and corporate support to assist in offsetting the production costs.” One of those most generous supporters is Ruud van Ommeren, the retired director of the Dutch firm, Bureau Zuidema. Van Ommeren, whose unparalleled generosity has made the “Forgotten Treasures” series possible, found his way to ARS Produktion through a young American-born and Juilliard-trained conductor named Michael Alexander Willens. Willens lives in Cologne, and his period-instrument orchestra, Die Kölner Akademie Damals und Heute, had been hired to perform at van Ommeren’s retirement party. Afterwards, Willens mustered the courage to ask van Ommeren if he would consider sponsoring a CD. A meeting was arranged, and Willens presented van Ommeren with a list of five recording projects: the clarinet concertos of Bernhard Crusell, the bassoon concertos of Franz Danzi, a disc of music by Johann Wilhelm Wilms (a symphony and a concerto each for flute and piano), a disc of 18th-century Viennese double-bass concertos, and Johann Valentin Meder’s St. Matthew Passion. “I was hoping that Ruud would take one of them, and if I were extremely lucky, two.” Willens said. All of the compositions had been suggested by members of the orchestra, and most had never been recorded. After about two seconds, van Ommeren told Willens, “I’ll take the whole thing.” Willens said, “I almost choked on my food! Now that Willens’ project had its financial backing, a recording company had to be chosen. “Our Dutch manager had a contact with ARS Produktion through one of his other artists,” Willens said. “He set up a meeting with Annette Schumacher, who had already received a demo disc of ours. At the meeting, I was immediately struck by the sound and balance on the ARS recordings.” A decision was made on the spot to cooperate on the project. “Since there were four CDs planned, I wanted a title for the series,” Willens told me, “and I came up with “Forgotten Treasures.” This seemed to express my feelings about the music.” “After the release of the first disc, I called Ruud and asked what he thought about it. He was thrilled and proposed that we should extend the series to 10 CDs; naturally I didn’t refuse!”Willens proceeded along the same path regarding repertoire. “I have several musicologist friends who have offered suggestions,” Willens said, “and the soloists have been helpful in proposing repertoire as well.” Earlier this year, van Ommeren asked that the series be extended yet again (!) to a dozen CDs, including discs for trumpet, harp, guitar, and organ. As I write this, eight of the discs are available; another two—one each for trumpet and harp—are being recorded this autumn and should be available in 2010. In addition to the releases noted earlier, there is a rapturous one of music for both natural and early valve horn entitled “Chant d’Automne,” another of oboe concertos by Johann Christian Fischer (a contemporary of Haydn) and Carl Stamitz, and a disc of music by Beethoven’s contemporary, Sigismund Neukomm. The cover art on each of the releases is as striking as the music is appealing. “Both Ruud and his wife,” Willens said, “are big contemporary-art fans and have commissioned several paintings and sculptures from Spanish artist José Herrera, whose work graces the covers of the CDs in the series.” Willens and his band aren’t sacrificing precious time and effort and even more precious money on composers whose music would be better off if left untouched. Even though some of these composers were forced to labor in the long and eternal shadows of the likes of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, their music is merely neglected, and far from negligible. As I have observed time and again, even significant talent—impressive though it may be—has never been able to stand toe-to-toe with genius. In spite of its appeal and critical reception, the “Forgotten Treasures” project has not been without its problems, though. One involved the procurement of scores and parts to several symphonies by the Bohemian composer Vincenc Mašek. “The music for these is unpublished and is in the library in Prague,” Willens said,” so I contacted the library and was told the music would be sent out.” Weeks went by and no music. “I called Prague again,” Willens added, “and this time was told that the man who had the only key to the room where the music was kept had been on vacation, but was reassured that the music would be shipped.” The scene kept repeating itself, but Willens was told by colleagues who knew the situation in Prague that he just had to wait. “When the package did arrive,” Willens said, “parts were missing and there was no score.” Rather than repeat the scenario, and also in desperation, Willens turned to Bert Hagels, a musicologist friend, who hurriedly sent him the scores and parts to three Bernard Romberg symphonies which were recorded as Volume 5 of the series. Michael Willens is among our nation’s finest young musical talents; he has chosen to focus on this esoteric repertoire, which he is comfortable with and loves recording. In fact, it fits him like a glove. His guest appearances are increasing, and along with Dutch fortepianist Ronald Brautigam, Willens and his band have begun recording a cycle of Mozart piano concertos for the Swedish label BIS. So far, Michael Willens has been able to have his cake and eat it too! In Fanfare 32:5 I had reviewed a CD of clarinet concertos by Bernhard Henrik Crusell with the same conductor and orchestra and Eric Hoeprich as soloist, so when I approached our Editor about working on this article and review, I had only a slight idea of what I was in for, that is from the artistic standpoint. I had barely heard of Michael Alexander Willens and his band, and none of the soloists listed in the heading were known to me. I tried to approach the project with a great deal of objectivity, not to mention a generous helping of curiosity. I suddenly found myself confronted by not one or two, but six CDs with an amazing spectrum of music and many composers whose names were only marginally familiar to me, if I knew them at all. But there was something about that initial Crusell disc that led me to believe there would be more than one or two special items in these latest arrivals. I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered, for my ears were serenaded with over six hours of glorious music, much of which had never been recorded before, and what had been recorded was not available on period instruments. If I had to select one disc that I found to be the most intriguing, it would probably be “Chant d’Automne,” a collection of rare miniatures for horn and orchestra that showcases the manifold talents of the young virtuoso Ulrich Hübner, whose playing in the Saint-Säens Morceau de concert is nothing short of brilliant. Close behind this is the recording of music by Beethoven’s contemporary Sigismund von Neukomm (1778–1858), which includes his 1808 orchestration of Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos, and a disc of symphonies by Bernhard Romberg (1767–1841). However, there are strengths to be found in the other discs as well, each of them filling a void in the repertoire. Most of this literature comes from the Classical and early-Romantic eras: bassoon concertos of Franz Danzi (1763–1826); oboe concertos of Carl Stamitz (1745–1801) and Johann Christian Fischer (1733–1800); and a disc of concertos for the five-string Viennese contrabass that includes music of Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754–1812), Wenceslav Pichl (1741–1805), and Johann Vanhal (1739–1813). There is much glorious music here, but particular interest should be paid to the Romberg, Danzi, and Neukomm discs. Romberg was a virtuoso cellist, considered the finest of his generation, and an excellent composer as well. The three symphonies on this release are among five he composed, and they are certainly capable of holding their own against comparable works of many second-echelon composers of the era, including Franz Krommer and Johann Vanhal. Romberg generated many excellent ideas for the three works recorded on the CD, developing themes in a capable and confident way without either understatement or overstatement; his orchestrations—particularly the liberal and bold use of the wind—exhibit both skill and poise. The dark-hued funereal “Trauer-Symphonie” is quite moving, filled as it is with appropriate pathos and tenderness. The apparent neglect of Danzi’s bassoon concertos may be due to the fact that they were, as Australian bassoonist Jane Gower puts it in her notes, “perfectly composed for the instrument of the period. The six- or seven-keyed bassoon of the early 19th century possessed completely different sound qualities and technical considerations than today’s modern German bassoon . . . . A Danzi concerto easily becomes rather dull company for a modern bassoonist . . . trying to perfect his technical mastery.” The opening Concerto in G Minor is the most striking. It is dark and solemn, with a much heavier orchestration than its discmates. The expansive construction of the opening movement—at just over 11 minutes, it’s longer than the other two combined—indicates that Danzi may have been as interested in dramatic content as he was in virtuoso display. The other two concertos are lighter in weight, but the soloist still has much to do and is given little respite by Danzi. Gower brings all of her talent to bear in these works, dashing them off as if they were child’s play, which they obviously are not. The unusual aural qualities of her early-19th-century instrument are perfectly balanced against the size and sound generated by Willens’ orchestra. Like Romberg, Sigismund von Neukomm was born between Mozart and Beethoven and lived well into the 19th century. His music, while containing some of the hallmarks of Romanticism, still owed much to the era of Haydn and Mozart. Misera, dove son! exhibits not only a strong sense of drama, but also a keen feeling for the Metastasian text at hand. The orchestral fantasy is one of five composed by Neukomm and is relatively long, consisting of a 114-measure Adagio followed by a 286-measure Allegro. It is merely a long overture with the opening section being completely self-contained and adhering to the A-B-A principle of sonata form. The Piano Concerto is the real gem here. It’s one of only two works for solo instrument and orchestra by Neukomm, and takes as its point of departure the piano concertos of Mozart. Indeed, there is more than a touch of the Salzburg Wunderkind here, but Neukomm is more than a knock-off, beginning the first movement in the parallel minor and with a dramatic slow introduction that beautifully dovetails into the extended and well-developed Allegro non troppo. The central Larghetto espressivo assai lifts the drama and tension only briefly before the finale—marked Allegro assai—resets the mood of the opening movement, only to yield to the radiant major near the end. Fortepianist Riko Fukada is an exceptionally gifted performer, and her performance is strong advocacy for this wonderful and neglected concerto. Fukada and some of the other soloists, while not widely known in the United States, are rising stars; others, like Jane Gower and mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland—whose performance of Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos rivals the legendary Avie recording by the late Arlene Auger—are already firmly established, with international careers in both the concert hall and recording studio. Die Kölner Akademie is an ensemble whose members are proficient on both modern and period instruments. Founded in 1996 and based in Cologne, it is made up of young musicians who represent the next generation of period-instrument performance. The ensemble has performed to critical acclaim at major festivals across the European continent, and many of their performances have been broadcast live, while several have been filmed for television. As the notes tell us, working with Michael Alexander Willens, Die Kölner Akademie strives to “bring out the composers’ intentions by way of utilizing the most up-to-date information on historical seating plans, performance practice, critical editions, and the proper instrumentation for each work.” Willens and his band represent the next generation of period-instrument performance and are more than up to the challenges that face them in these recordings. Their playing is alert, poised, and when appropriate, it brims with edge-of-the-seat excitement. The phrasing is immaculate, the intonation exceptional, and the melodic lines are carefully shaped and properly tapered. This is committed musicianship at its finest, and there can be little doubt that it raises the bar for period-instrument performance! ARS Produktion has given us an intriguing and appealing series of recordings that is commended by a number of factors, including unfailing musicological insight and a wonderfully rich sound palate. Indeed, the sound is striking, enveloping the listener in an aural glow that can stand beside the finest in the industry. This is due in no small measure to the artistry of recording engineer Manfred Schumacher and the superb aural qualities of the venue, the Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal. Herr Schumacher’s technical acumen ensures that details of the orchestration are never lost in the church’s wonderful acoustics, and that when a soloist is present, they are front and center, but never to the extent that they overwhelm their colleagues. When listening with headphones, I found that extraneous noise from chairs and movements of the musicians is barely noticeable, so there is little to distract the attention of the auditor, who is left with a realistic perspective, not to mention the impression that he or she is immersed in the sound. A colleague of mine and I listened to these recordings over the period of a week, and we came away with a feeling of complete satisfaction regarding the sound and performances. I can’t say enough good about these discs, but I do have one minor criticism, and that is that the notes are laid out in an odd way and are not sequential from page to page. The English text of the first page is printed in German on the second and this pattern is repeated throughout, making reading a bit of a chore. That aside, these are must-haves for the avid collector and they also may be an epiphany for those yet to veer from the well-worn path trod by the major labels.
In: Fanfare Magazine, Juli/August 2009