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Richard WETZ (1875-1935)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 40 (1917) [62:42]
Symphony No. 2 in A major Op. 47 (1919) [43:06]
Kleist Overture Op. 16 (1899) [16:08]
Symphony No. 3 Op. 48 in B flat major (1920-22) [50:47]
Gesang des Lebens Op. 29 (1908) [8:57]
Violin Concerto Op. 57 in B minor [30:11]
Traumsommernacht Op. 14 (1904) [5:45]
Hyperion Op. 32 (1912) [16:13]
Ulf Wallin (violin)
Markus Köhler (baritone, Hyperion)
Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra/Roland Bader
Landesjugendchor Rheinland Pfalz
Kammerchor der Musikhichschule Augsburg
Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Werner Andreas Albert
rec. 1994-2005, Cracow Philharmonic Hall, Philharmonie Ludwigshafen.
CPO 555 298-2 [4 CDs: 233:51]

The CPO label recorded a number of works by Richard Wetz back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the Requiem (review) and these orchestral works, of which the Second Symphony was reviewed on these pages (review). Wetz is still by no means a household name, and if you look him up on Wikipedia almost the first sentence is a quote from John Williamson regarding the symphonies, in which Wetz “seems to have aimed to be an immediate continuation of Bruckner, as a result of which he actually ended up on the margin of music history.” The composer’s profile was somewhat restricted in his adopted provincial home town of Erfurt, and his reputation not aided by an identification with National Socialist ideology between the wars. There are many neglected composers ripe for re-evaluation these days however, and seeing these symphonies and other works together in a complete set invites the innocent ear to see what’s on offer here.

Wetz was already 40 years old when he embarked on composing his First Symphony and the Brucknerian influence is clear from the start, with expansive themes, leisurely transitions and an architectural building of climaxes all descending from that master’s technical toolbox. You might mistake this for Bruckner if you don’t really know Bruckner, but even with the master’s fingerprints in evidence all over the place you have to admit there is a talent at work with some steps made towards finding a more original voice. The orchestration is effective, and there is thematic richness with a clear facility for invention. The slow movement, Sehr langsam und ausdrucksvoll is indeed deeply expressive and has some nice harmonic twists, though lacks a melody that would stick in the memory. The finale is full of drama and sometimes brooding passion. The booklet notes suggest autobiographical intentions, and there are indeed some powerful moments. The performance throughout is serviceable, but there are passages in which the brass section sounds a bit uncomfortable particularly in the first movement, and wind intonation is not particularly special.

A new symphony, a different orchestra and a new recording session, the Second Symphony sounds more secure and confident from the start from all concerned. The opening has an open, almost pastoral feel, an atmosphere soon dashed by dramatic brass fanfares and sturdy string development. While Bruckner remains a strong presence there is also a flavour of Nielsen in the first movement to this symphony in its harmonic intricacies, tensions and releases. Unlike the First Symphony the Second does without a scherzo, and the expansive first movement is followed by a substantial slow central movement whose lyricism often has a Wagnerian endlessness to its character. Wetz’s romanticism is rich and effusive, but he manages to avoid sentimentality quite well and there is a narrative feel to this movement that suggests something grim and Arthurian. The ghost of Mahler creeps in to the finale, with blazing brass announcing a theme which is transferred to strings and followed by a second theme in the woodwinds before being developed and combined with considerable inventiveness. This is a powerful movement, and quite inspiring in the treatment of its themes. Brucknerian techniques crop up frequently but the actual content has more eloquence and individuality, and we’re carried along on an unstoppable journey that is well worth taking more than once.

CD 2 concludes with the Kleist Overture, and this was one of Weltz’s big career successes, having been conducted by Arthur Nikisch in Berlin and Leipzig. The piece is a symphonic poem with Goethe, ‘the unhappy dramatist’ at its core. Liszt is an influence here, with the transfer of literary drama into music creating a strong impression of defiance and heroism. Free-form orchestral writing seems to suit Wetz as much as if not more than extended symphonic form, keeping a solid grounding in good musical content, avoiding too much cliché while letting the imagination run a wide-ranging course from start to finish.

The Third Symphony resumes the four-movement structure of the first, but now with the slow movement and scherzo swapping places. The first movement opens with an eloquent slow introduction full of intriguing harmonic development, and while this gives way to a more energetic Kräftig bewegt main section the underlying pace unfolds with monumental steadiness. Lyrical softness jostles with moods of almost programmatic and defiant heroism, but the movement works well enough for some elusive reason. The following movement is marked Sehr langsam, mit klagendem Ausdruk, though while the ‘plaintive’ expression is clear from the opening this is by no means the only element, sharing space as it does with more uplifting sentiments. The scherzo is marked not too fast and Mit Humor, adding a further dimension to the Lisztian ‘symphonic poem’ aspect of this symphony as a whole, jaunty winds leading us on a merry dance that takes us into a more serious trio section, where our dancers take time to woo under the light of the moon – the mood dispersed by a final return to the japes of the beginning. The finale is just marked Bewegt, returning us to the ever-restless but generally brooding feel of the first movement. Whatever our initial response, Wetz has a way of surprising us just enough to keep the ear awake and the mind engaged. Not all of the passages are equally convincing, and the shadow of Bruckner is still cast from time to time, but allow this movement to take hold and you’ll want to take the journey to its rousing conclusion.

There is competition for the Third Symphony in what claims to be its first recording with the Symphonisches Orchester Berlin conducted by Erich Peter re-released on the Sterling label (review). This is a more expansive reading that Werner Andreas Albert’s, which undercuts each movement in terms of duration, with the outer movements in particular longer by margins of minutes. Intonation isn’t always perfect in this recording, and Erich Peter can be rather leaden in passages that need to pick up energy. The sound of the strings is also thinner than with the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. While each version has its positive qualities I’m happy to stick with the CPO recording as a solid recommendation.

CD 3 ends with Gesang des Lebens or ‘Song of Life’, the text of which is as with all the choral works is printed in the booklet in both German and English. This is an odd piece, the male voices of the choir giving the music a fraternal feel at the start: ‘Life is great and rich!’ More expressive writing gives us some Mahlerian harmonic richness as the human heart is discouraged and the imagery darkens, but we’re allowed a swelling conclusion as the personification of luck ‘radiantly went by with its resounding wheels.’

The Violin Concerto was Wetz’s final large-scale work, and is one of, if not the best work in this collection. Cast in one movement but divided into four tracks on the CD, it sounds fantastic in the capable hands of Ulf Wallin, who relishes this work’s eloquence. There isn’t a huge amount of virtuoso writing for the soloist, and soaring lyrical shapes are more of a feature. Even the cadenza moments are more like ‘monologue’ passages with the orchestra never entirely receding, but with Wetz’s harmonic richness there is a great deal to get your teeth stuck into with this concerto, and indeed few passages where you have the feeling things could move along a bit quicker. As with the symphony you won’t come away with particularly memorable themes stuck in your head, but with this concerto there is a freedom of expression that is quite compelling throughout, and the section at track 4 is sublime. This comes before a rousing penultimate section with cadenza and a final coda – not the strongest of endings, but you’ll want to hear it all again quite soon.

Traumsommernacht for female choir and orchestra sets a poem by Otto Julius Bierbaum, and summed up in the booklet as “enchanting, feathery floating along as if on musical waterlilies between Beardsley’s slender lady vines and Franz Schrecker’s almost exactly contemporaneous Schwanensang…Hyperion on a text by Friedrich Hölderlin for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, is more substantial, with a mildly Wagnerian air at its background but by no means as filled with tension and heightened stresses. Wetz’s creative process followed a pattern of inactivity, and then an upwelling of inspiration in which he be came compelled to write whatever the muse dictated. Hyperion is one of those works that defies easy categorisation perhaps for that reason, being neither a cantata not a typical orchestral song – the easiest comparison might be to a vocal movement by Mahler, but even here the parallels are tenuous. There is no difficulty with the actual music however, which has passages of impressionistic beauty and moments of dramatic climax which are capably carried by all performers, Markus Köhler’s solo being admirably restrained and clear.

Anyone unaware of Richard Wetz but keen on Romantic orchestral music on a Brucknerian scale should seek out this set. The playing can be a bit provincial, especially in the First Symphony in which the horn section of the Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra seems to have had a few to many swigs of cider before the session, but the performances are generally satisfactory in the more essential works. The Second and most certainly the Third Symphony and Violin Concerto are all worth discovering, and while I can’t imagine there being a mad rush to add these works to orchestral programmes it would be nice to see this composer’s profile raised a little higher than as currently seems to be the case. He’s more of a crowd-pleaser than you might expect.

Dominy Clements

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