In his day, Austrian-born Robert Fuchs was known more as a distinguished pedagogue than as a composer. He counted Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Franz Schmidt, Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold among his students. But Fuchs also wrote music of considerable merit, and if you are a fan of the serenades by Johannes Brahms and Antonin Dvorak, this release will come as a welcome surprise.
Brahms, a bit of a curmudgeon, was critical of young, aspiring composers, but not Fuchs, who became a good friend, and whose music he greatly admired. Consequently, it's not surprising to find his influence in Fuchs' works, particularly the later ones, which point the way toward Richard Strauss.
The first two of Fuchs' three serenades for strings are included here, beginning with the earliest from 1874. The charming opening andante has the melodic mellifluence of Schubert. A gracefully delicate minuet and scurrying, colorfully modulatory scherzo follow. The latter presages the Italian Serenade of Hugo Wolf, who also studied with Fuchs.
The pathos-filled adagio brings to mind Edvard Grieg's more brooding string works. But not one to take himself too seriously, Fuchs ends the work with a perky allegro that wiggles with high spirits.
The second serenade, written two years later, opens with a skipping allegretto, delicate as a lace doily, and just as intricately fabricated. The larghetto is, stylistically similar to Dvorak, while the penultimate allegro sounds folk related. The concluding presto, set to a cantering rhythm, delivers an appealing chromatic fickleness that leaves the listener smiling.
The disc closes with a more serious work, the Andante grazioso and Capriccio for strings, written in 1900. The melancholy opening glows with the warmth of a red sunset, perhaps a sign that as he aged Fuchs was experiencing the darker side of life.
It's offset by the Capriccio, where jaunty waltz-like passages surround a central introspective episode. The piece concludes matter-of-factly in a minor key, leaving one feeling the composer wasn't the "happy camper" he'd once been.
The 18 members of the Cologne Chamber Orchestra under their music director Christian Ludwig acquit themselves well. They play this superbly crafted music with great precision, but instill it with enough feeling to insure that it never sounds academic.
Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his web site Classical Lost and Found.