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Egon WELLESZ (1885-1974)
Symphony No. 2 Op. 65 The English (1947-48)
Symphony No. 9 Op. 111 (1970)
Radio Symphonieorchester Wien/Gottfried Rabl
CPO 999 997-2 [75:05]

Egon Wellesz came to England after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on 9 March 1938, and it was as a refugee from Nazism that he spent ten years in Oxford during the Second World War and after. I remember the composer Edmund Rubbra’s gentle smile as he told me about the Wellesz he met at Oxford, who while a very pleasant and urbane colleague clearly believed himself, as a composer, a member of a higher musical culture. Indeed, in reviewing a work such as Wellesz’s Second Symphony one is reminded of the clash of cultures which is revealed on checking the Wellesz files at the BBC Written Archive Centre at Caversham – I was fascinated to be able to put this first recording of Wellesz’s Second into context by seeing how the music was received by the BBC in August 1949, particularly as the (to Wellesz un-named) assessors included some of the leading British symphonic composers of the day.

Edmund Rubbra found it to be ‘A powerful work written by a master-craftsman. The idiom is a very accessible one, yet the composer manages to say some vital things with it. It should certainly be performed.’ William Alwyn was not so keen. ‘This is a scholarly work – erudite, rather than musical. The slow movement owes much to Mahler (as indeed does the scherzo) but it lacks the fire & inspiration of that composer. The scoring is generally competent without showing any original flair for orchestration. In construction the work is thoroughly grounded on Brahms. I cannot recommend it with any enthusiasm.’ Lennox Berkeley was not sympathetic to the idiom but recognised its achievement. ‘I don’t care very much for this – to me it is ponderous and rather conventional. However, that is a matter of personal taste - technically it is exceedingly well done, and full of sincerely and well-expressed feeling. I think it should be broadcast.’ Later, after a performance in 1951, the BBC’s Maurice Johnstone reported: ‘I heard two thirds of it. Long-winded, pretentious, dull, unoriginal romantic music. Craft and orchestration not more than competent – I do not think it will take root.’ From the perspective of 2004 I cannot share his response, and it is interesting that fifty years on it is Maurice Johnstone’s own music that has failed to last. (Though very different, of course, Johnstone’s music is not without merit either.)

So how does the recording stand up, on hearing the symphony over fifty years later? The four movement Second Symphony is certainly an approachable and immediately involving piece, from the first movement’s Brucknerian opening to its Mahlerian second subject, and its tuneful scherzo, slow movement and finale. Yet for me it is ultimately an unfulfilling work which never seems to draw the sum of its glorious parts to a satisfying conclusion. I have delayed filing this review feeling I must be wrong about this, but after a couple of months’ acquaintance I still find myself responding in the same way. What is not in doubt is that you should certainly hear it and make up your own mind, for there is much to admire, even love.

I had previously known the music from a truly terrible-sounding tape of a BBC performance in the early 1950s (probably BBCSO/Boult 4 December 1951) where the movement that stood out was the catchy, bucolic Scherzo, almost a ländler, and with its folk-dance like trio tune accompanied by a repeated motif, very much an Austrian celebration on returning to the country. The lyrical lines of the slow movement, supposedly deriving from an English folk song, but also sounding to this Brit very Austrian, is a heart-warming wide-spanning invention spun out to over ten minutes. Here one can well imagine Wellesz’s purpose was not dissimilar to Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, hymning a culture smashed by the war. Writing about Wellesz’s first three symphonies, Hans Redlich perhaps sensed this when he wrote in The Listener: ‘Wellesz composes his symphonies within the limits of a living tradition, occasionally using thematic material and harmonic processes of his forerunners with legitimate pride and a subtle understanding of their untapped possibilities. Wellesz composes these symphonies with the . . . sincerity of an Austrian for whom the sonorous symbols of classical symphony have retained their full spiritual value and their technical relevancy.’ Indeed in a letter to Alec Robertson at the BBC Wellesz stated he was taking up ‘the line abandoned by Schubert’. Incidentally, while the symphony is called The English, as I have suggested there is nothing English about it other than its celebration of Wellesz’s adopted country; this is surely a Viennese emigré’s song of homesickness after the horrors and dissolution of war.

The finale contains some of the most memorable invention, the opening idea reminiscent of a similar one in the finale of Wellesz’s better-known Octet of 1949; and when the strings suddenly dominate the orchestra, abruptly launching into the repeat of the lyrical second subject, we experience one of those heart-stoppingly delicious moments which CD allows one to repeat ad nauseam once one has caught the bug. And yet for me, over all it is the least satisfactory movement of the whole work, its many faceted world seeming to stop and start unconvincingly.

The three movement Ninth Symphony is a much tougher nut to crack, the first movement deriving from a four note series and its connection with Viennese tradition being, for a celebrated pupil of Schoenberg, a much later one than its companion on the CD. What a pity that CPO did not take us through the Wellesz symphonies in chronological order, rather than what seems like mixing the bon-bons with the castor oil. There is an enormous potential audience for the first four, possibly a rather smaller one for the more recondite later ones.

And yet the Ninth Symphony is a remarkable score and has its own rewards – the sound is more luminous thanks to Wellesz’s scoring in points of colour, and the gaunt lines and abrasive dissonance evoke a drama, intense and threatening which grips from the outset. This music, I suspect, is much more difficult for the orchestra than the earlier symphony, but the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra certainly rise to the challenge, with playing of poise and intensity. The short elusive slow movement is very much an interlude in the drama before we reach the finale. Here the pointillism is more integral to the invention, its oppressive climax underlining that this is no resolution.

In the finale (the longest of the three movements) a ubiquitous motif based on a simple descending second provides a unifying element and in fact ends the symphony. This is a deeply-felt tragic adagio, at the outset the long lines devoid of warmth, though vastly expressive, lead through a bleak musical landscape. This is no warmly reflective vision of old age, but an austere and rigorous exploration of the material both musically and emotionally. It is given added force for us by the knowledge that soon afterwards Wellesz suffered the stroke which ended his composing career, leaving him paralysed. This is indeed a striking 23 minute score but one far removed from the lyricism of the earlier symphony on this CD which is self-recommending. The whole is well played and recorded: I look forward to the third volume of Gottfried Rabl’s sympathetic and long overdue championship of Wellesz’s symphonies on CPO with impatience, when presumably we will have either the First or Third Symphony.

Lewis Foreman



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