James Conlon isn't the only conductor championing the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann these days, but he's one of the most persuasive. Hartmann had just started to make a name for himself as a composer when the Nazi era began in Germany. He did not join the exodus of artists and musicians, but refused to let his music be played while the Third Reich was in power. He continued to compose, shelving most of his completed manuscripts until after World War II. Many of them carry titles that reflect the sense of sadness in the music, such as "Miserae" and "Trauer Musik" (music for mourning). "Concerto Funebre," written in 1939 for violin and orchestra, is one of those.
In a program Friday evening that included Schubert's upbeat "Rosamunde" overture, Mozart's sprightly "Symphony No. 39" and Berg's "Seven Early Songs" (about sexual awakening), the concerto stood out on several counts. It was much more dissonant than the Berg (which precedes his serialist period), much the most emotionally resonant -- and it also got by far the best performance.
In some ways it bears striking resemblances to Shostakovich, another composer struggling to practice his art under a repressive regime. It starts slow, segues without pause into a main fast movement, and ends with a slow, funereal march, a form Shostakovich especially favored. But Hartmann's musical language has none of the sarcasm and symbolic content of Shostakovich. He is his own truly unique 20th-century voice, in this piece conveying a sense of overwhelming sadness leavened by just enough optimism to keep it from becoming depressing.
Salzburg-born violinist Thomas Zehetmair, who began a three-year tenure last fall as conductor and artistic director of the Northern Sinfonia, is in Aspen this summer as part of David Zinman's American Academy of Conducting. His 1997 recording of the Szymanowski concertos with the City of Birmingham Symphony under Simon Rattle won several awards, and here he played Hartmann’s ‘Concerto Funebre’ with enormous dignity and heartbreaking phrasing. He has a special feeling for Hartmann, too -- his eponymous string quartet recorded a Hartmann quartet recently -- and it showed from the very first phrases, in which the violin quotes a Czech chorale. Zehetmair and Conlon infused Hartmann's sometimes jagged lines with surprising lyricism. The violinist displayed extraordinary clarity of tone and intonation and ease of technique. The conductor drew delicate playing from the largely student orchestra and never let the piece become ponderous.
In contrast, the playing in the purely orchestral parts of the program often congealed into heavy textures. The Schubert felt more like Beethoven and the Mozart never quite attained liftoff, even in the fleet finale. The playing was much better in Berg's lushly romantic songs. Soprano Jennifer Ringo, Conlon's wife, gave the text a knowing interpretation, but her voice showed too much disparity in color between loud and soft, high and low, and lacked the cream that can make these songs unbearably sexy.