Karl WEIGL (1881-1949)
Isle of the Dead (1903) [13.12]
Pictures and Tales, Op.2 (1909) [13.03]
Night Fantasies, Op.13 (1911) [21.35]
Dance of the Furies (1937-8) [5.21]
Six Fantasies (1942) [25.30]
Joseph Banowetz (piano)
rec. Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California, 9-10 November, 18 December 2009
NAXOS 8.572423 [78.49] 

Karl Weigl was yet another of the many European composers who sought refuge in America during the Nazi era. He had begun his career in Vienna as a pianist and as a conductor under Mahler, but after a time started to focus on large-scale orchestral canvases. He does not appear to have been happy in exile, and was largely neglected as a composer, turning again to smaller-scale pieces which had more chance of performance. However he wrote two later symphonies (see review), and these have recently been recorded by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling for BIS. The Fifth Symphony, subtitled Apocalyptic, is a real surprise (see review) - it begins with the sound of the orchestra tuning up and only gradually does the thematic material emerge from this early example of ‘free music’. The two symphonies are otherwise thoroughly romantic works, for all the world as if the Second Viennese School had never existed.
His piano music, on the other hand, is far less ambitious. The pieces here are all either early or late works, and seem to have been intended largely for Weigl’s own performances as a recitalist. The disc opens with the charming Six Fantasies which he originally wrote for occasional recitals or broadcasts in America but then it does not seem that any public performances ever actually materialised. They are pretty lightweight trifles, designed clearly as crowd-pleasers pure and simple. Nor are they really virtuoso pieces; they could indeed have been written a hundred years earlier, and would not have turned heads even then. Only the final movement, subtitled Halloween, generates any real sense of excitement; this piece makes more demands on the pianist, which Banowetz handles with aplomb and a nice lightness of touch.
Weigl appears to have been the first composer to have taken inspiration from Böcklin’s famous painting of the Totinsel, before either Reger (in his beautiful Four Böcklin Pictures) or Rachmaninov in his large-scale symphonic poem. However Weigl never published his score - he seems to have regarded it as a piece of juvenilia - and the performance here is claimed, amazingly enough, to be the first one ever given. It is a nicely atmospheric piece reflecting its subject, and shows no signs of immaturity. That said, it is rather over-long for its content, and the limited tone-colour of the piano cannot begin to compete with its orchestral rivals. It ends very inconclusively - was this intentional, or did Weigl simply leave the piece unfinished?
The six pieces which make up the Bilder und Geschichten take their titles from various children’s rhymes and stories, and have a certain kinship to Schumann’s Kinderszenen. These are again very straightforward pieces, although they would be too complex for most children to play. Even the movement Sleeping Beauty’s grave is very lightweight, indeed almost frisky. The Tanz der Erinnyen was written just before Weigl left for America, and he afterwards seems to have forgotten it because he never performed or published it; it was not performed until 1970. It is quite a virtuoso piece, and has the implication of a gesture of defiance to the inhospitable Europe that he was leaving behind.
The Nachtphantasien on the other hand were taken up by several pianists, although Weigl himself only ever performed individual movements in a simplified version for two pianos. Perhaps his technique was simply not up to it - which might also explain the relatively modest demands made on the pianist in the works that he did compose for his own recitals. These are the best works on this disc, moody and reflective with a nice line in stormy passion; the first movement contains a brief passage (at 2.05) which anticipates the melody Prokofiev would later use in his lament in Alexander Nevsky. The later pieces are rather less impressive, reminiscent of Rachmaninov but without the same sheer force of personality.
Listeners who wish to make the acquaintance of Weigl would be served far better by listening to one of the recordings of the symphonies as an initial introduction to the work of an unfairly neglected composer. The piano pieces included here help to round out our impressions of one of the last of the late romantics, but they do not give a rounded picture of a composer whose inspiration seems to have worked better on a larger scale. Banowetz however should be congratulated on his continuing willingness to explore the fringes of the repertory, and gives nicely intimate performances in well-rounded sound. None of the music here over-taxes his abilities, but it is nevertheless nice to make its acquaintance.  

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Nicely intimate performances in well-rounded sound. One of the last of the late romantics.