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Egon WELLESZ (1885-1974)
Symphony No. 4 Op. 70 (1951-1953) [27:56]
Symphony No. 6 Op. 95 (1965) [23:18]
Symphony No. 7 Op. 102 (1967) [18:58]
Radio Symphonieorchester Wien/Gottfried Rabl
Recorded: Grosser Sendesaal, Funkhaus ORF, 13-16, 26-27 Nov 2001. DDD
CPO 999 808-2 [70:44]


I must confess to never having heard a symphony by Egon Wellesz before this CD arrived on the doorstep. To some folk this will be a dreadful and unforgivable admission. But the simple fact is that I have never made it there before. It is one of the joys of listening to music that I make constant discoveries – good, bad and indifferent.

Now my immediate reaction is that I have been missing something these fifty years. But my mitigation is two fold – he is not exactly the most prominent name at symphony orchestra concerts and secondly there are only thirteen or so CDs listed in the Arkiv online catalogue representing some sixteen or so works. However we are fortunate in having seven out of the nine symphonies available on CPO. Furthermore I am led to understand that the missing numbers Two and Nine are ‘on the stocks.’

Perhaps just a few words about the composer, for those like myself who do not know much about him. Basically Egon Wellesz was an ‘honorary’ British composer, having fled to this country from his home Vienna as a result of Nazi persecution. He had been professor of musicology at Vienna and he more or less continued this career in the UK.

One of his key interests was Byzantine music and these studies influenced his own compositions. Just how, would require a treatise or doctoral dissertation, but for now we can allude to the use of the pentatonic (black notes) in melody construction.

In his Austrian days he had studied with Arnold Schoenberg, but also absorbed a number of influences from Max Reger and Gustav Mahler. Describing Wellesz’s style is difficult. I do not like to say he sounds like ‘x, y or z,’ however the general consensus seems to be that he successfully managed to synthesise disparate elements from the expressionist, classical and archaic musical vocabularies.

The CD opens with perhaps the ‘easiest’ of the three symphonies to come to terms with. This Fourth Symphony is still very much in the tonal sound world so it does not challenge the ears quite as much as some of Wellesz’s later numbers. In fact the third movement, the adagio, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the repertoire. I am glad to have had the opportunity of getting to know it and it will long remain a favourite.

The Op.70 is subtitled Sinfonia Austriaca and quite obviously looks back to the composer’s birthplace. It would be quite in order to describe this as ‘romantic.’ To my ears at least this work owes much more to Mahler and Reger rather than the Schoenberg or the ‘secret’ harmonies of Byzantine monks. Rob Barnett suggests Franz Schmidt’s Second Symphony as a useful signpost, but that is little help to me as I do not know that work.

The Sixth Symphony is unlike the tonal and possibly romantic music presented in the Fourth. Wellesz’s musical language has had a sea-change in the meantime. It would be fair to say that the first four symphonies owed much to Mahler, Bruckner and perhaps even Schubert. However the Fifth began to explore the use of the twelve note row in conjunction with a still tonal language. The Sixth Symphony makes use of “freely applied atonality, melodic construction preferring broad intervals, increasingly thin texture, and, in connection with it, increasing economy of instrumentation.” The Sixth has three movements – an animated scherzo framed by two slow outer movements. This work is definitely taut. However, strange as it may seem, some of the passages made me think of Vaughan Williams’ Fourth and Sixth Symphonies as reference points. Perhaps it is Wellesz’s use of unison string cantilenas that suggests this?

I listened to the Seventh Symphony straight through twice. Now this was strange, as after reading the programme notes, I felt sure that this would be the work that I least enjoyed. However I was wrong. It is probably the symphony that moved me most!

Back in the late nineteen-sixties when the symphony was composed it would perhaps be seen as being quite ‘modern.’ However, thirty eight years have flown by and now it is revealed as actually quite a ‘lyrical’ work. The excellent notes by Hannes Heher describe the compositional process in some detail. However it is best to say that the work owes something to Webern. But Wellesz is not slavishly beholden to anyone. I suppose that the music of Humphrey Searle kept springing to mind as I listened. Once again Rob Barnett is helpful by sagely alluding to some of the late works of Frank Bridge. The symphony carries a subtitle of ‘Contra Torrentem’ – against the stream.

The presentation of the CD is superb. The quality of the sound is absolutely beyond reproach. The superb artwork on the cover is by Egon Schiele (Melanie, the sister of the Künstlers) and adds to the sophisticated feel of this disc. And of course the programme notes come up to CPO’s usual high standard: a veritable essay on the symphonies. It includes a short article by Gottfried Rabl on the trials and tribulations of preparing the scores for performance. Apparently Wellesz did not have an eye for detail on the written page!

All in all this is superb CD. I believe that it is a good introduction to the symphonies of Egon Wellesz. The order in which the works are presented allows the listener to be drawn into the composer’s sound-world without too great a sense of musical dislocation.

Each of these works is vital; all three symphonies are an integral and essential contribution to the symphonic literature of the twentieth century. I find it incredible that they are represented by only one recording each. Such, unfortunately are the ways of the classical music world.

I will be looking forward to hearing the other six symphonies at the earliest possible opportunity.

John France



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