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Karol RATHAUS (1895-1954)
Symphony No. 2 Op. 7 (1923) [33:59]
Symphony No. 3 Op. 50 (1942-43) [42:56]
Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt/Israel Yinon
rec. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach-Konzerthalle, Frankfurt (Oder), 24-27 June, 8-9 July 2002. DDD
CPO 777 031-2 [77:28]


Rathaus was Polish-born - one of that generation of composers hounded from Germany by the irresistible rise of Adolf Hitler. Ultimately he fetched up in the USA after Britain's narrow-mindedness prevented him from earning a living. Contrary to his hopes or expectations he did not find a home in the film industry nor on Broadway. Instead he ended up in the welcoming ranks of American academia. Had he remained in Poland he would have suffered the same fate as others who were execrated by the Nazi-aligned critics. His Second Symphony performed in Frankfurt in the 1920s came in for condemnation as ‘music of the Zulu kaffirs’.

His music has gradually accrued modern recordings. The principal orchestral entrants until now were one disc apiece from Centaur and Decca. The 1997 Centaur CD (CRC 2402 see review) of Suite for violin and orchestra (1929); Suite for orchestra (1930); Serenade for orchestra (1931) and Polonaise Symphonique (1943) was recorded in the Czech Republic (see review). A much more illustrious contender is the Decca 'Entartete Musik' CD of Symphony No. 1 and the ballet 'The Last Pierrot'. While deleted everywhere else this disc is still buyable in Germany along with the whole of the ‘Entartete Musik’ range. Try where they used to sell for 9.99 euros apiece.

The Second Symphony is a product of his early blooming confidence. The music coasts close to the perils of 12-tone writing but evades the trap. There is dissonance but it is used alongside consonance for colour and effect. There also is a deathly starkness about this music. Rathaus charts a pilgrimage through a land of loathing, disillusion, doom and a sort of knowing innocence. The finale, lasting only 4.40, is typical of the landscape: some Stravinsky but much more in the way of late Mahler, mordant, scorching and driven by the furies.

Wind the clock forward a decade which saw uprooting and hardship and which had not yet seen the end of Axis fascism and we find music of greater accessibility. The four movements of the Third Symphony are in an idiom moderately spiced and often of romantic inclination. Rathaus had found security as a professor at Queen's College in New York and, much to his surprise, loved it. This shows I think in the confident tumultuous writing of this 42 minute work. The idiom is anything but spare. It is laden with dense turbulent Mahlerian cantabile. There is carefree playfulness in the diminutive scherzo (tr. 6) sounding a little like a ländler at one moment and at another like Bernard Herrmann's music for the Magnificent Ambersons. In the Andantino and final allegro appassionato an uneasy Mahlerian lyricism takes hold. That finale also bears the impress of dancing figuration indebted to Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh symphonies.

Rathaus was a Polish composer educated in Vienna, a student of Schreker in Berlin and feted among the avant-garde during the 1920s. He lived in London during the 1930s and emigrated to the USA at the end of the second world war. While the fifth edition of Grove claims the influence of Szymanowski his music as represented by these two symphonies bears no such resemblance. It is tough and harmonically game although without dodecaphony.

Rob Barnett



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