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Felix WOYRSCH (1860-1944)
Symphony No. 4 in F major op.71 [34:09]
Symphony No. 5 in D major op.75 [21:03]
Garden Scene from ‘Scenes to Goethe’s Faust’ [5:26]
NDR Radiophilharmonie / Thomas Dorsch
rec. 2015, Groβer Sendesaal des Landesfunkhaus Hannover
CPO 555 063-2 [60:44]

Woyrsch’s fourth symphony, composed in 1930 is a work which initially struck me as virtually tuneless. Repeated listening made me revise my opinion a little, but I still feel that as far as tunes go, it leaves a fair amount to be desired.

The first movement is dominated by an oft-repeated short phrase, melodically undistinguished and, by the end of the movement, almost irritating in its dour impact. Other short themes make their appearance at the outset, but are subject to slight variation as they reappear. This results in longer passages which are constructed of these varying themes, and as such, varying in themselves to such a degree that I find it difficult to remember them.

The slow movement is rather more attractive, and on occasion has the brass calling out in Brucknerian style, and indeed, falls into an A-B-A-B-A structure, like several of Bruckner’s adagios. However, although the material is more memorable than the first movement, Woyrsch again continually varies his themes, so that on repeat, recognition is made more difficult. To quote the booklet “There are no substantial recapitulations; the themes receive different continuations after each appearance”.

The third movement is described as a “Minuet in the rococo style with variations”, but the booklet note avers that Woyrsch’s minuet is nothing of the sort. Instead we are presented with a brief dance-like affair that culminates in four variations on existing motifs.

The fourth movement contains two fugatos (part fugues) and proceeds in a busily contrapuntal manner, with occasional moments of relaxation. Melodically short-breathed, the two fugatos are combined together to continue the movement, and Woyrsch brings the symphony to a brief rousing conclusion.

To summarise, the symphony is built of short melodic ideas that create sharp contrasts within a compound structure, and so is a work of abrupt reversals and unexpected twists. I found listening to it to be an unsatisfying experience.

The fifth symphony, composed some five years after the fourth, is a much shorter work. It did not find a publisher until 2015. Like its predecessor, it relies on short phrases that give the first movement a rather jerky, breathless feel, and once again the lack of even half-memorable themes mitigates against it. The slow movement, at nearly seven minutes, is the longest of the four. The opening theme is its lynchpin, and appears three times. It is quite nice, but is embedded in a harmonic labyrinth (to quote the booklet note), and once again I find the short-breathed nature of the writing to be something of an aural trial.

It is followed by a scherzo of 3 minutes. The brevity allows the undistinguished melodic material to pass by quickly.

The last movement is built up from contrasting motifs whose combinations fail to yield any sort of periodic structure. It speeds up and slows down, often over a few bars. This may be regarded as something of a listener’s surprise, but I find it tiresome.

The disc concludes with Woyrsch’s last completed work, the only piece from a projected three-part suite on Goethe’s Faust. Posthumous examination of the composer’s paperwork has revealed it to originally have been intended as part of his first symphony, but it was not fated to play such a role. The music consists of several short themes, strung together with no sign of a development of any of them. None of the themes hang around long enough for the ear to become accustomed to them.

Having read a positive earlier review of the Woyrsch Second Symphony here, I was expecting to enjoy his music, but it must be clear to the reader that I am far from enamoured of the examples that appear on this CD. This is a shame, because over the years I have grown to really appreciate CPO’s delving into the byways of 19th/20th Century German music. To finish, I should say that the booklet notes are well up to CPO’s standard, although they delve into a technical dissection of the scores that will be pretty meaningless to the average listener. The recording is fine and the orchestra play well, in a committed manner.

Jim Westhead

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