FELIX WEINGARTNER: Complete Symphonies. Symphonies 1 – 7 and Symphonic Works [Details follow] – Maya Boog, sop./ Franziska Gottwald, alto/ Rolf Romei, tenor /Christopher Bolduc, bar./ Babette Mondry, organ/ Czech Philharmonic Choir Brünn/ Symphonieorchester Basel/ Marko Letonja – CPO multichannel SACD, 777 938-2, TT: 38 hr. 18 min. (7 SACDs) [Distrib. by Naxos] ****:
This set traces the symphonic careers of one of the twentieth-century’s great conductors, from the Romantic to the not-very-late Romantic era.
Some listeners swear that the finest conductor-symphonist of the twentieth century is Bruno Walter. I confess I haven’t heard his Symphony No. 1, also brought to us by the enterprising folks at CPO. Others favor the view that Wilhelm Furtwängler’s three massive Brucknerian works are tops. I admit that No. 2 is impressive, though it tends to go to lengths that even Bruckner might have blushed at. But certainly none of these masters could match, at least in terms of production, Felix Weingartner, who managed to turn out seven symphonies and a large clutch of other symphonic works while engaged in an international conducting career. In fact, it seems he, like Mahler, considered himself a composer who also conducted.
I had started to follow this Weingartner series from Marko Letonja and the Basel Symphony Orchestra soon after it was embarked on back in 2003. Based on recommendations, I purchased and listened to with some enthusiasm Symphonies 2 and 4, but I didn’t feel enthusiastic enough to follow Letonja to the end of his project. At least until now. One thing to say immediately is that although these recordings were made over a period of ten years, the quality of the performances are consistent, and consistently good, throughout, as is CPO’s typically fine sound, especially considering that these are all live recordings. The venue, Casino Basel, must be an excellent one, and Basel audiences must be a quiet and accommodating lot.
The first disc in the series brings us the König Lear Overture of 1895, which is suitably serious though not grim. In fact, it is a work of delicate shading, light represented by the portrait of the king himself and of the love of his faithful daughter Cordelia. If you know the story of the original, well, you can guess from whence the darkness in Weingartner’s portrayal proceeds. It isn’t terribly original in sound or conception, reminding me of similar works by lesser Romantics such as Joseph Joachim, Karl Goldmark, and even of the early Macbeth Overture of Richard Strauss. In contrast is the overture’s disc mate, the sunnily youthful First Symphony of 1898. Perhaps the best movement is the light-footed scherzo that sounds like latter-day Mendelssohn with an extra dollop of rusticity. Very attractive. The bustling finale seems to have a slight Scandinavian accent, reminding me in spots of Grieg and Svendsen.
Volume 3 in the series brings us the Second Symphony and the 1897 tone poem Das Gefilde der Seligen (The Elysian Fields) based, like a number of such turn-of-century works (most by famously Max Reger and Rachmaninoff), on a painting by symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin. Weingartner’s piece starts dreamily, with lots of strings and harp filigrees, but erupts into more dancelike and sensuous sections, accented with tambourine, cymbals, and triangle. It unfolds with a natural, seamless kind of grace until it reaches a climax introducing grander music altogether, finally returning to the dancing rhythms of the second section. It’s an accomplished piece, with some of the sensuality of Franck’s Psyché et Eros, though it’s strains are more Wagnerian than Franckian.
There’s quite a shift to the austere Lento strains that open the Second Symphony of 1900. If it was Weingartner’s object to produce a symphony of a totally different character from that of the First, he succeeded. Lightheartedness is replaced by a heroic earnestness—and an altogether grander scale—that some earlier critics frowned on, missing the freshness of the earlier symphony. Here, the best movement is perhaps the serene, songful Adagio third movement, which supplies needed respite after the grand posturing of the first two movements.
The Third Symphony takes up most of Volume 4—a work of Mahlerian dimensions if in no way approaching the innovative sound world or structures of Mahler’s symphonies of the same period. Weingartner’s symphony is prefaced by the brief Lustige Ouvertüre, which has some of the cheekiness and good humor of the composer’s near contemporary Emil von Reznicek. The Third Symphony of 1909 is a big, lush, late-Romantic work with Brucknerian overtones but a gorgeous orchestral palette that is clearly of its time. As the notes to the recording suggest, Weingartner seems to luxuriate in the big structure and big sound he’s created, producing a less tightly-argued and emotionally centered work than the first two symphonies.
With Symphony No. 4, we have another shift in emphasis. This is a smaller symphony in every way than the Third, half as long, half as loud, it seems. At the time of its composition, 1916, Weingartner and his wife were vacationing at the Tegernsee in the Bavarian Alps, and the symphony is full of local color. Weingartner himself described it as bucolic. Not that it is devoid of passionate utterances, especially in the rather Brahmsian Andante con moto second movement. But the markings of the last two movements—Comodo, grazioso and Poco lento – Allegro giocoso—capture the general character of the work: good-natured and gracious.
The Fourth Symphony’s disc mates are the overture and suite Der Sturm based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the tiny Serenade for Strings. The Serenade is an apt companion to the symphony, sweet-tempered and downright pretty. It’s not in the league of the famous serenades of Dvořák or Elgar, but it surely deserves to be heard on the airwaves and in the concert halls. A very different atmosphere prevails in Der Sturm, with a crashing, bashing evocation of the eponymous tempest and some apt portraits of characters and scenes from Shakespeare’s play. Again, Tchaikovsky’s and Sibelius’s music on the same drama far outstrip Weingartner’s efforts at storytelling. The atmosphere is closer to the cozy Victorianism of Arthur Sullivan’s evocation of The Tempest. As you can probably guess, Der Sturm is not my favorite Weingartner.
Volume 5 pairs the Fifth Symphony with the Overture Aus ernster Zeit (From a Serious Time). The “serious time” of the title is the outbreak of the First World War. In this overture, Weingartner wages musical war against France, England, and Russia, tossing around scraps of the Marseillaise, “God, Save Our King,” and the Russian National Anthem, often in parody versions of the melody. Toward the end of the piece, Haydn’s stately Gott, erhalt der Kaiser makes its entry on the organ. Then, it’s musical war all over again before the Haydn tune returns in all its glory, trouncing the anthems of all the Allied Powers. You won’t hear Aus ernster Zeit anytime soon in the concert hall, but it’s fun and well worth knowing.
The Fifth Symphony (1917) is Weingartner’s first symphony in a minor key. It’s also his most Brucknerian, with the long-breathed melodies and potent dramatic atmosphere of minor-key Bruckner. The blaring trombones in the development section of the first movement are a page right out of the Austrian master’s playbook, as are the pizzicati in the second movement scherzo, which sounds like a cross between the scherzi from Bruckner’s Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. You don’t have to like Bruckner to enjoy Weingartner’s retro Symphony No. 5, but it doesn’t hurt, either. However, I have to say that the fugal finale is a letdown, not half as inspired as the other movements.
The Sixth Symphony finds Weingartner again working in the minor mode—b minor, to be exact (the key signature of the Unfinished Symphony). Here, the musical figure behind the symphony is not Bruckner but Bruckner’s supposed precursor, Franz Schubert. The impetus for Weingartner’s Schubert tribute was apparently a contest held by the American Shubert Centennial Committee, which offered a $20,000 prize. Entrants in the contest were to submit “a composition in the orchestral form used by Schubert to consist of two movements which the contestant proposes for the continuation of the Unfinished Symphony, though the rules also allowed that the composition could be “an original work in two movements composed in the romantic spirit which animated Schubert’s music and especially his Unfinished Symphony. Since Weingartner had been elected to the contest’s advisory committee, he couldn’t participate. But the idea behind the contest, including the suggestion by the contest organizers that a participant could complete the two-page sketch for the third movement scherzo that Schubert left unfinished, stuck with Weingartner. So not only does Weingartner’s symphony attempt to capture the “romantic spirit” of Schubert, albeit in twentieth-century orchestral and harmonic garb, but the second movement of the symphony is, indeed, a completion of Schubert’s unfinished scherzo. Others have offered completions of the scherzo (and in fact of the entire Schubert symphony, most notably musicologist Brian Newbould), but Weingartner’s was the first. As a tribute to Schubert on the anniversary of his death, the symphony has an appropriately elegiac air, and its title appropriately recalls the subtitle of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, “the Tragic.” Weingartner’s work is immediately attractive, as long as you can accept its musical antiquarianism.
Along with the Sixth Symphony, we have Früling, a tone poem that appropriately starts with a musical depiction of the tail end of winter. Actually, however, we are hearing a theme that will undergo a series of variations that cleverly double as vignettes of spring, from March storms through the sounds of birdcalls to dancing celebrations of the return of sun and soft breezes. The hybrid form confused early reviewers of the work, but both the design and working out, including the ripe orchestration, are admirable, even if Weingartner can’t resist writing one of his typically turgid fugues along the way.
Finally, we have Weingartner’s Beethoven tribute, sort of, a choral symphony with four soloists, organ, and a large orchestra, though not the behemoth of an orchestra the composer brought to bear on his massive Third Symphony. Premiered in 1942, about four months before Weingartner’s death, the symphony is, at least architecturally, the composer’s most Mahlerian, although the atmosphere and sound picture correspond to an earlier, less sardonic Mahler, the Mahler of the Second Symphony, perhaps.
For his texts, Weingartner chooses Friedrich Hebbel’s “Two Wanderers,” “Your earthly day will soon mature into evening” by Carmen Studer (interestingly, one of Weingartner’s conducting pupils), and Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Hymn to Love.” The poems form a progression from man’s stumbling awareness of his fellow man, impeded by selfishness and passion, to a final paean to the power of love, which frees the soul from its earthly chains.
In terms of construction, the buoyant scherzo seems to intrude on the atmosphere created by Hebbel’s poem in the preceding Andante sostenuto. Weingartner lacks Mahler’s knack for (mostly) making disparate elements fit together into a cogent symphonic scheme.
More or less in the manner of Mahler’s Urlich movement from the Second Symphony, in the Andante tranquillo opening of the finale the soprano intones Studer’s verses accompanied first by the organ and then by strings and brass. The music blooms in an attractive way as the sentiments Studer expresses become increasingly optimistic.
The concluding section is dedicated to Hölderlin’s vision of love’s triumph over the mundane. The music is tender, a bit maudlin, as is the verse itself, though there are passages of strength and vibrancy. The chromatic urgency of earlier sections in the symphony are replaced by a diatonic brightness and a frankly Romantic (as opposed to late-Romantic or post-Romantic) musical language.
So, then, what does Weingartner’s symphonic music add up to finally? Weingartner embraced a number of musical influences throughout his career though he never progressed beyond the late-Romantic style of the early years of the twentieth century. Still, the composer managed to create an appealing musical persona that, if not at all original, is uniquely identifiable. I tend to prefer the less monumental Weingartner, the composer of the First, Fourth, and Sixth Symphonies. Your experience, as they say, may be different. In any event, there is much that will entertain and edify in these sympathetic performances of the Austrian composer’s music.
Vol. 1: König Lear, Op. 20; Symphony No. 1 in G Major, Op. 23
Vol. 2: Der Sturm, Overture and Suite; Serenade for String Orchestra; Symphony No. 4 in F Major, Op. 61
Vol. 3: Das Gefilde der Seligen, Op. 21; Symphony No. 2, Op. 29
Vol. 4: Lustige Ouvertüre, Op. 53; Symphony No. 3, Op. 49
Vol. 5: Overture Aus ernster Zeit, Op. 56; Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 71
Vol. 6: Früling, Op. 80; Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op 74, “La Tragica”
Vol 7: Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 88