EGON WELLESZ: The long-awaited world premiere of the third symphony triumphs in Vienna.
Composer, musicologist and Byzantine expert, Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) led a busy and productive life dedicated to the service of music. All aspects of Wellesz's impressive career were comprehensively covered in an informative and fascinating exhibition held from March 31stth to May 5th 2000 in Vienna at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and organised by the dynamic Egon Wellesz Foundation. This exhibition (a reduced version of which continues from the 9th May until the 4th May 2001 at 37, Reisnerstrasse in Vienna) includes press cuttings, artefacts and medals from all eras of Wellesz's career. It is but a part of the continuing rise in Wellesz's international profile, one of the highpoints of which was reached on April 29th when the composer's Third Symphony received its world première in the prestigious surroundings of Vienna's Musikverein nearly fifty years after Wellesz completed it.
The Third (written in Oxford between May 1950 and September 1951) has long been the Cinderella of Wellesz's magnificent nine symphonies. Having completing the score, the composer searched for a publisher in vain and first performance plans involving the BBC and Sir Adrian Boult fell through. Wellesz began his Fourth Symphony (1951-1953) almost immediately and understandably became more concerned with his latest project. From the Fifth (1956) onwards, Wellesz's symphonic style became more Expressionist and his former teacher Schoenberg replaced Bruckner as the predominating influence. Wellesz lost the impetus to get his Third premièred: as late as the mid-1960s when the Sixth Symphony was nearing its first performance, he wrote that, as far as the Third was concerned, "we have to wait".
By the time of Wellesz's death in November 1974, the Third was his only example in the genre to have remained unpublished and unperformed. It seemed destined to become a forgotten score until last year when Dr Hannes Heher, a composer and active member of the Egon Wellesz Foundation, took the surviving manuscripts residing in the Music Department of the Austrian National Library and created a performing version of the symphony. This was no realisation of sketches in the manner of the Elgar-Payne Symphony no 3 as the Wellesz score was complete, but more a case of checking the full score and parts for inaccuracies and inconsistencies, of which, as Dr Heher remarked, there were very few. The whole process took just one year for Dr Heher, a veritable one-man firm of editor and producer, to complete. Arrangements were made for the score to be published by Doblinger, Wellesz's old Viennese publishing firm, the services of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Marcello Viotti were secured and in the rarefied atmosphere of the Musikverein, so steeped in the Austrian tradition that Wellesz knew and loved so well and indeed came to embody himself, the long-awaited world première took place on Saturday April 29th.
The opening movement (11'44''), a sonorous and gripping Allegro maestoso, began with a commanding unison theme entirely characteristic of the early Wellesz symphonies. Starting with a "Viennese interval" of a descending seventh, this majestic theme reappeared at nodal points during the course of the movement, evermore richly harmonised, whilst the plaintive second subject for woodwind provided ample contrast. There is a third subject group which is fugal in character and closely related to the opening theme. Two passages containing an arpeggiated figure for strings spanning two octaves caught the ear: a varied version of this figure appears in a gentler context as the rocking accompaniment to the main theme of the Andante, molto tranquillo third movement of the Wellesz Sixth String Quartet of 1946. The blistering coda to the Third Symphony outdid Bruckner in its use of a colossal chorale and hammering home of the tonic A major key via bold timpani strokes which recalled the ending of Mahler's Third Symphony in its transcendental homecoming.
The Adagio second movement (09'27'') started out like an archetypal Wellesz symphonic slow movement with its highly expressive D minor opening theme for violins and a Brucknerian chorale. However, disturbing echoes of the drama of the previous movement broke through, leading to a contrasting Andante central section: a lyrical cantabile sunburst like a vivid memory of a Styrian summer in the unexpected key of D flat. The passage leading back to the opening material was at once simple and masterly, bearing eloquent testimony to Wellesz the experienced composer and musicologist. The movement closed with a hushed benediction from the chorale, beautifully phrased in the première performance by the brass and strings of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
The following moto perpetuo-like third movement is a fleet-footed Scherzo in 6/8 time (04'57''). It is perhaps the nearest Wellesz ever came to writing an unashamed orchestral showpiece. Whirling spiccato scales in the violins (sounding like a benign version of the nightmarish rushing strings from the Trio of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony) and frenzied hunting horns verging on parody framed two short Trio-like sections in 2/4 time which stole in like some half-remembered rustic idyll. The blistering Scherzo material had a ferocious virtuosity and Maestro Viotti took up the challenge of this five-minute pyrotechnical display with relish and panache, securing miraculous playing from the excellent Vienna orchestra. This dynamic showstopper was rightly rewarded with a spontaneous outburst of applause from a delighted audience.
The Finale (09'40'') revisited the atmosphere and subject matter of the opening movement. The opening Sostenuto had a wide-ranging sombre introductory theme which metamorphosed into an Allegro moderato Mahlerian march. The contrasting second subject emerged on solo oboe over shimmering strings. The massive coda consisted of a remarkable eighteen bars of the pitch A in triplets blasted out by the trumpets set against the angular Mahlerian march-like main theme punched out by the rest of the orchestra. The final bars were as big-boned and sovereign as any Bruckner or Mahler peroration, crowning a passionate and full-blooded orchestral work. Indeed, it is hard to believe that such vehement and frequently angry-sounding music could have come from the pen of the sixty-five year old Egon Wellesz, the mild-mannered, softly spoken man of letters.
The Third Symphony is at once the most powerfully dramatic and operatic of Wellesz's cycle. The composer's distinguished contributions to both ballet and opera are evident in the score, revealing a born man of the theatre. Marcello Viotti, a fellow man of the theatre, responded intuitively to the overtly dramatic nature of the symphony, investing the dramatis personae of the outer movements' first and second subjects, for example, with an opera conductor's flair for characterisation. The brilliant Scherzo, delivered at white heat, could have been written for a conductor of Viotti's temperament and his delight at the Viennese players' miraculous execution of this formidable firecracker was obvious. The conductor's holding aloft of the score at the end of the performance was no empty gesture: he was clearly convinced by the symphony and has already expressed a desire to conduct it again.
The choice of Anton Bruckner's Fourth Symphony to form the second half of the concert could not have been more apposite: firstly it served to underline Bruckner's influence on Wellesz's early symphonies (and the Third in particular). Secondly, it was the very work which featured in the concert played in the Musikverein on 20th February 1938 by the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter together with Wellesz's recently completed symphonic Suite "Prospero's Incantations". In the words of the distinguished writer Hans Redlich, "many a witness felt dimly aware that this Philharmonic concert...might be the last occasion for Austrian music to assert itself for a long time to come". In the disturbingly right-wing political climate of contemporary Vienna where spirited anti-government demonstrations are organised on a weekly basis, the music of Egon Wellesz once more joined forces with fellow Catholic and humanist Anton Bruckner in a moving display of incorruptible spirituality and craftsmanship in uncertain times.
The distinguished writer, critic and Scandinavian music expert Robert Layton remembers hearing Egon Wellesz, one of his teachers at Oxford, playing through the score of the Third Symphony on the piano at the composer's home in Woodstock Road, Oxford in the early 1950s. Wellesz sang along with gusto and hammered out the frequently violent outbursts in the score on his piano, holding down the sustaining pedal for most of the time! This poignant image of an artist in his study in an alien land desperately trying to realise from the sounds in his head the grand orchestral textures of his most dramatic and Brucknerian of symphonies (which he was never to hear in his lifetime) contrasted sharply with the stunning success of the first performance in the ornate surroundings of the venerable Musikverein. The VSO and Marcello Viotti's powerfully committed performance initiated no less than four curtain calls by a notoriously traditional audience not noted for its ready acceptance of unfamiliar repertoire.
News that another Wellesz symphony, his Ninth, will be performed in the Vienna Konzerthaus on Thursday December 7th only serves to confirm that, after many decades spent in exile, Egon Wellesz the master of symphonic writing, has finally come home to his Viennese roots. Notwithstanding the excellent Wigmore Hall concert last March, which showcased a selection of some of Wellesz's most expressive chamber works, it still remains for Britain to respond to the irresistible rise of Egon Wellesz the symphonist. Vienna has shown the way: it would be appropriate for the country in which the composer wrote all nine of his symphonies to respond with a British performance. The quality of the works is not in doubt. Soon, their place in the mainstream repertoire of international orchestras may also be assured.
©Paul Conway 7/00
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