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Julius BITTNER (1874-1939)
Vaterland; Symphonic poem (1915) [18:21]
Symphony No.1 in F minor (1923) [46:46]
Siberian Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Vasiliev
rec. 2018, Omsk Philharmonic Hall, Omsk, Siberia

An exact contemporary of Franz Schmidt and Arnold Schoenberg, Julius Bittmer is termed ‘Forgotten Romantic’ in Brendan G Carroll’s splendid booklet notes. Notes are certainly needed because Bittner is now only a peripheral figure from Vienna’s musical heyday. A high-ranking lawyer, he held an important office in the Austrian Department of Justice until diabetes caused him to retire in his mid-40s. Largely untaught musically as a boy, it was Brahms who suggested the boy study with Josef Labor who also taught Paul Wittgenstein and Alma Schindler, later Mahler’s wife. Labor, another now obscure figure in the city’s musical life, and primarily remembered as an organist, has experienced a small rediscovery via an incredibly rare piano disc he made just after the end of the First World War. It’s on Marston 52073-2.

Wagner, rather more than Brahms, remained Bittner’s lodestar and his friendship with Bruno Walter enabled him to meet Mahler – he was later to become Mahler’s lawyer. He was also taken up by Weingartner. He shared with his much younger friend Korngold – who proved a staunch support financially in Bittner’s troubled final years (he was a double amputee) - and with Joseph Marx a liking for orchestral landscapes on the grand scale, and opera was an obvious route in Vienna. Der rote Gred was his first operatic success, among many. Bittner died in January 1939. He was a Catholic and Carroll notes that his music was ‘inexplicably prohibited’ by the Nazi administration in Vienna. Perhaps it’s explicable if they considered him a ‘Jew-lover’, which as Ladislav Grosman reminds us in the Slovak film The Shop on the High Street, was almost worse than being a Jew.

The two works in this pioneering disc, both receiving their first ever recordings, are a symphonic poem and a symphony. Vaterland was composed in 1915, cast in one 18-minute Lisztian span with real Wagnerian heft to propel its Nationalist wartime sentiments. Its slower sections are well paced but its eruptive vehemence is grandiose in the extreme, with military brass calls and fine, eloquent wind writing. A jaunty march follows before, at around the mid-point, Bittner unfolds a luscious lyric-romantic, Korngoldian tune, succulent and embracing, before reaching out to the organ to intone Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott. The triumphant peroration, bells pealing, speaks of imminent victory.

In the Symphony No.1 of 1923 things are very different. The four-movement 47-minute work is hardly unduly expansive, is well-structured and eminently accessible. Its opening undulating figures are appealing, and Bittner can generate forceful outbursts as well as some intriguing sonorities. There are scattered Brahmsian cadences, perhaps others of Schmidt, and plenty of the kind of rhythmic and brass build-up one would associate with Bruckner. This last element is especially true of the grave nobility of the second movement, with some moving writing and lovely wind textures. The music’s elevated spirit must surely reflect Bittner’s own clearly elevated human qualities.

From here, though, for me, the symphony starts to come off the rails. The scherzo is a strange affair, bucolic in part, with some kind of hellish dance, possibly Mahler-influenced, running through it. There’s brief B section, and a perky, pawky element; and it’s all as much balletic as symphonic. A dance-like quality certainly infuses the finale, vibrant and with an admixture of raucous percussion, ending in brassy Dance Spectacular mode. It’s as if the work is broken-backed; half spiritual odyssey, half dance orgy. It’s splendidly if rather in places over-splendidly orchestrated, but lacks a consuming logic, a narrative that makes real symphonic sense.

However, Bittner is a figure worth knowing and this is just the first in a survey of his orchestral music. I can imagine more polished performances, but they are vigorous and attentive and certainly seem to bring out the music’s vitalising core.

Jonathan Woolf

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