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Karl WEIGL (1881-1949)
Cello Concerto (1934) [27:33]
Two Pieces for Violoncello and Piano (1940) [9:52]
Menuetto for Violoncello and Piano (1948) [5:35]
Cello Sonata (1923) [20:09]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
John York (piano)
Edward Rushton (piano) (sonata)
Konzerthausorchester Berlin/Nicholas Milton
rec. 2017/18, Großer Saal, Konzerthaus, Berlin; Nimbus Wyastone Estates, UK
CPO 555 189-2 [63:16]

This new release is the second from CPO in their ongoing series Voices in the wilderness - Cello Concertos by Exiled Jewish Composers. Both a very personal quest and a labour of love, cellist Raphael Wallfisch’s mission is to champion Jewish composers who were silenced by the Third Reich and fled their country of origin to survive.  His own parents survived the holocaust and settled in England.  I had the pleasure of reviewing the first volume, featuring concertos by Hans Gál and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, in 2017. In this latest one, Wallfisch presents works by the Austrian composer Karl Weigl.

Weigl was born in Vienna in 1881.  Showing early musical promise, he was taken under the wing of Alexander Zemlinsky for private tuition in 1896. Three years later he enrolled at the Vienna Music Academy, where he became a composition pupil of Robert Fuchs. He also studied musicology at the University of Vienna with Guido Adler: Anton Webern was a fellow student. In 1910 he became a répétiteur for Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Opera. His involvement in World War I was limited due to his near-sightedness. Several teaching jobs followed in Vienna, but when the Nazis occupied Austria in 1938 Weigl, as a prominent Jew, fled with his family to the United States. His remaining years were spent there teaching and composing. He died in New York in 1949.  His compositions include symphonies, orchestral works, chamber music and an opera.
Listening to this engaging Cello Concerto of 1934, it seems remarkable that, up until this recording, it has languished in obscurity. Weigl’s Piano Concerto (1931), Concerto for Left Hand (1924) and Violin Concerto (1930) each had their advocates at the time of completion, but the Cello Concerto failed to stir up the same enthusiasm. Not even Piatigorsky, the dedicatee of the second movement, could be persuaded. We can only surmise that the composer’s blacklisting by the Nazis was a deciding factor. The opening movement’s martial-type theme is positive, confident and cheerful and the upbeat nature of the music remains a constant. The slow movement has a Brucknerian expansiveness, which is majestic, noble and fervent. Milton’s instinctive contouring of the orchestral lines around the cello’s tender utterances has immense appeal. Jaunty and eager, the finale brings the work to a close in a mood of optimism and positivity. I must add that there is some alluring woodwind writing, beautifully played and superbly captured in the mix.

The Cello Sonata dates back to 1923, and the spirit of Brahms doesn’t seem that far removed. The first movement begins with confidence and assurance, with the second subject broad and passionate. These contrasting moods fluctuate throughout. The second movement, marked Larghetto, is sombre and reflective, with the piano assuming a more accompanying and subservient role with its repeated chords supporting the cello’s doleful lament. The third movement is ebullient and uninhibited, and Weigl employs canons and fugal passages during its course.

The Two Pieces for Violoncello and Piano were written in 1940 and dedicated to Arturo Toscanini. Love Song wallows in chromatically textured harmonies. Its mien is wistful. John York coaxes some luminous sonorities from the piano. Wild Dance couldn’t be more different. Brusque and vigorous, it’s spiced up with harmonics and sul ponticello effects. There is plenty of bite in Wallfisch’s attack. The Menuetto is thought to date from 1948, and is an arrangement of the second movement of Weigl’s Viola Sonata. I found it the least interesting of the short pieces.

Wallfich’s commendable efforts, in collaboration with CPO, are a sterling achievement. The performances breathe new life into these historically significant scores. Both recording venues are sympathetic to the cause.

Stephen Greenbank

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