Egon Wellesz was born into an affluent Jewish family and had every
expectation of a brilliant musical career in his home city of
Vienna. Like many another he had reckoned without the malign intervention
of Hitler's Third Reich. He fled to England where he remained
after the war and became a noted academic much respected at Oxford
University and beyond. He also contributed to Grove. His symphonies
achieved the occasional Third Programme broadcast and at one stage
the conductor Hugo Rignold became something of a champion so far
as the later symphonies were concerned. Do not miss Paul Conway’s
Wellesz article on this subject.
The first five symphonies
proclaim their roots in the great Germanic symphonic tradition
with links to Schubert, Bruckner and Mahler but all increasingly
viewed through Schoenberg's 12-tone 'glass'. All of them may
be seen as having been liberated by the experience of the Second
World War; look at the date of the first of them.
The present set is
the only way to hear the Wellesz symphonies. That is unless you
buy them piecemeal as single CPO discs. They were issued over
a five year period; links to the MWI reviews of the solo discs
are built into the header. What CPO have done, rather as they
did with their Pepping,
boxes, is to scoop the discs off the warehouse shelves, place
them in a new cardboard slipcase, then apply the shrink-wrap machine
and a much lower unit price. Very welcome too.
Symphony, written when he was a Brahmsian sixty, is in three
movements. The first of these has a slightly academic Bachian
flavour – perhaps shades of a Stokowski
organ transcription on a stern day. This is clearly a very
serious piece of writing. The second movement is more carefree
- a model in lucid and dancingly buzzing activity - sometimes
it too slips into fugal patterning. The final molto adagio
sostenuto has genuine emotional depth; more inward and passionate
than the preceding movements. The writing of this work must
have been a great release because throughout the war Wellesz
had been unable to write a single note of music.
The compact Eighth
Symphony was premiered in a very different world in 1971
in Vienna by Miltiades Caridis. It is a work of emotional turbulence,
protesting anger and drained exhaustion. It is expressed in
the free-wheeling language of dissonance and angularity rather
than of Schubertian melody. A much more compact work than the
First it is about two-thirds the length of the earlier piece.
The Symphonischer Epilog is in much the same dissenting
and fragmented style. The tense discontinuity of these later
works recalls late Havergal Brian as in his Symphonies 24 to
32. Wellesz like Brian had the genius to paint elusive moods;
listen to the last few moments of the Epilogue - a work,
rather like Brian's Symphonia Brevis, that repays repeat
listening sessions. It was premiered on 13 May 1977 by the Lower
Austrian Musicians' Orchestra conducted by Carl Melles.
The Second Symphony
is the longest of the nine; the Ninth is the shortest bar
the seventh. Certainly Wellesz became less discursive over the
quarter century spanned by his symphonies. The Second is most
impressive – a work you must hear and fascinating at every turn.
This is a work of consistently high standard. This much is proclaimed
by its memorably hushed Brucknerian gallop, its tender romance
and noble aspect [4:40, I] and to the benevolent insurgency
and infiltration of tone-rows in the least intimidating way.
Its Scherzo is engagingly Nutcracker-gawky in the manner
of Siegfried Wagner and Franz Schmidt. The Adagio has
a grand funereal tread. The finale recalls Schubert’s Great
C major and ends by juxtaposing playfulness with eldritch awe.
By contrast the Ninth Symphony is succinct and resolutely
dissonant – even forbidding. Yet amid the fractured mosaic a
range of moods is accommodated: from striding and scorched tragedy
to lop-sided humour to hauntingly acidic arching grandeur.
In the thorny company
of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies the Fourth, Sinfonia
Austriaca declares its faith in romantic roots. With
that title I was expecting something as discursive in scale
and epic in mood as Furtwängler's Second, Karl Weigl's Fifth
or Franz Schmidt's Second. In fact the latter is a close cousin
with rustic charm meeting tortured massed violin writing and
cresting French horns. The eloquent confidence of the string
anthem at 3.03 in the Adagio impresses deeply. The work
was premiered on 11 November 1956 in Vienna conducted by Rudolf
Moralt who made a fine 1950s recording of the Schmidt Fourth
Six and Seven
are cut from uncompromisingly dissonant and episodic cloth.
The level of challenge is similar to the symphonies of Frankel
though Wellesz is more doom-laden and despairing. Havergal Brian
is again another reference point. If this is organic progress
its ineluctable arc is deeply subsumed. In the middle movement
of the Sixth - the last five of Wellesz's nine symphonies are
in three parts - he uses his hallmark method of touching in
a theme by passing it note by note to different instruments.
The themes themselves are not playful but speak of the distraught,
the tragic. Moments of light occasionally float into sharp focus
as in the rural caprice of 4.48 in the finale of the Sixth.
These are dispelled by spasms and shudders of cold disrupting
the winter sunshine. The Sixth ends in quiet repose while the
Seventh shouts in tragedy – the brass rail in angry magnificence.
Otherwise the moods of the two works have much in common. He
is never dull or prolix and always displays brilliance in instrumental
texture. All the same many will find this hard going.
The symphonies 6
and 7 were respectively premiered on 23 June 1966 at Nüremberg
with Michael Gielen/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and 21
November 1968 with Hugo Rignold/City of Birmingham Symphony
No. 3 was started one year after completion of the Second
but was not premiered until 2002. The music has little in the
way of surface attraction – again no easy victories. There is
a Brahmsian sobriety about this and the first movement is like
a Bach organ work transcribed by Schoenberg.
The second is more ingratiating but rises to a Brucknerian gravity
of expression. The scherzo third movement skips along almost
nonchalantly with Brucknerian references peeping through and
across the bar-lines ... and the sun is shining. A contented
gift of a melody plays the feminine riposte to a daring masculine
figure recalling the Bruckner symphonies 3 and 4. The finale
has Protestant earnestness as if wanting to put behind it the
‘indecency’ of the two central movements. I must not overdo
references to the Schoenberg voice but certainly the music betrays
a freer approach to tonality. The work ends with a typically
terse Brucknerian gesture.
Four years later
came the Fifth Symphony with a similar palette to that
of the Third. Again the four movements are desperately serious
with strong tribute presented to Schoenberg. They only lack
the contrast of the central movements of the Third. Counterpoint
and fugue thread their way through this work of North German
gravity. It smiles but it can be a relentless grimace. Solo
voices, woodwind and violin, float free but the language is
always occluded and soaked in the 12-tone argot. Intriguingly
the finale with its pummelling bass-heavy sound is topped off
by shrieking trumpets; a contrast to all that has gone before.
It ends with an emphatic angry growl. Rabl gives a masterfully
intense performance. There is even a majesty of sorts but it
is of an awe-struck forbidding sort among much that is trudging,
turbulent and unforgiving.
notes about the recording process tells us that Wellesz's printed
scores and mss were littered with errors. Time oppressed the
elderly composer and a harvest of misprints and mistakes was
the result. Fortunately Rabl was able to examine sketches and
galley proofs at the National Library in Vienna and has made
all the necessary corrections. The excellent background notes
by Hannes Heher are in the usual encyclopedic CPO style.
The recordings of
these deeply serious and sometimes unsettling symphonies are uniformly
superb – lively, three dimensional and natural.