Hartmann orchestral TOCC676

Thomas de Hartmann (1884-1956)
Fantaisie-Concerto for double-bass and orchestra, Op 65 (1942/44)
Symphonie-Poème No 1, Op 50 (1934)
Leon Bosch (double bass)
Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar
rec. 2021, National Philharmonic Hall, Lviv, Ukraine

This is the third disc of Thomas de Hartmann’s orchestral music that I have had the pleasure of reviewing in 2022. That the orchestral music of a long-forgotten and overlooked Ukrainian composer should emerge after nearly seven decades after his death in a particularly dark year for his native country, has not been lost on me. However, sentiments aside, I must say I have been particularly impressed with the other two releases, especially with his Piano Concerto (review) and his ballet suite Une fête en Ukraine (review) that, curiously, have been issued by two different record labels, Toccata Classics and Nimbus. All feature the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra and are part of the ongoing Thomas de Hartmann project, set up in 2006 to promote and re-establish the music of the composer.

This release has rather stubbornly been labelled “Orchestral Music – Vol.2”, even though it is the third release in the series (although it does reference the Nimbus issue in its notes) and features the first of de Hartmann’s four symphonies (which he calls Symphonie-Poèmes), the uncompleted Fourth being on the first Toccata disc, with the Third being on the Nimbus. It also features another concerto, this time for double-bass, to add to those for the flute and piano on the previous issues.

That de Hartmann had the most colourful and varied life is something of an understatement, but perhaps also explains why his music may have slipped under the radar, he never having been in one place long enough to build and sustain a reputation. Both the previous issues shared the same long and detailed biography of the composer by John R Mangan of Yale University, but on this occasion Elan Sicroff, one of the driving forces behind the de Hartmann projected and the soloist in the Piano Concerto on the Nimbus issue, has provided some background information instead, which I have attempted to distil into one paragraph for your delectation below.

Thomas de Hartmann was born into a Russian aristocratic family in 1885 in Khoruzhivka, now northern Ukraine. The family wealth allowed him the freedom to pursue his passion and study music and he could count amongst his teachers such Russian greats as Arensky, Taneyev and Rimsky Korsakov. In 1906, at 21 years of age, his four-Act ballet was performed at both the Imperial Opera Houses of Moscow and St Petersburg with Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova and Michel Fokine, no less, dancing the principal roles; he was, at that time, one of the best-known living composers in the whole of Russia. However, the explosive early trajectory of his career appears to have been permanently derailed first by his being recalled at the start of the First World War in 1914 from Munich, where he was studying with Felix Mottl, to serve as an army officer, before the Russian Revolution three years later forced him, as a member of the aristocracy, to flee Russia with his wife to Tbilisi the capital of Georgia which, at the time, was an independent Republic. There, an affiliation with the Russian mystic/philosopher George Gurdjieff followed, resulting in the composer living at various times in Constantinople, Berlin and Paris, having had to flee the Nazis; he finally ended up in New York. This constant relocation could go some way to explaining how his music, which includes four symphonies, several operas and ballets, concertos, sonatas and songs, never quite gained a foothold either locally, or in the wider repertoire, even though it was championed by significant musicians of the time, such as Leopold Stokowski, Pablo Casals, Paul Tortelier, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Serge Koussevitzky. Instead, he was forced to make a living from writing film scores, of which there are over fifty. The debut concert dedicated to his music planned in New York in 1956 sums up everything: the composer – perhaps on the cusp of belated recognition – died of a heart attack at the start of the rehearsals.

Mention of Serge Koussevitzky above, leads things nicely into one of the works on the present disc, the Double Bass Concerto, which was inspired by both Koussevitzky (who was himself a double-bass player as well as the conductor of the premiere of de Hartmann’s Cello Concerto – with Paul Tortelier and the Boston Symphony, no less), as well as a charming tale of the composer Glinka, as recalled by de Hartmann himself, where Glinka had a double-bass-playing servant who took part in improvised ensembles, playing fragments of the opera Ruslan and Lyudmila as it was composed. I cannot vouch for the legitimacy of the story, but would mention that if the servant was able to perform the opera’s overture on his instrument, he must have been very good!

I must confess to not being familiar with many Double Bass Concertos – apparently, Serge Koussevitzky also composed one, as did (to my, limited, knowledge) Robin Holloway, Eduard Tubin and Nikos Salkottas. De Hartmann’s own is cast in three movements, lasts some sixteen minutes and is colourfully orchestrated, with chamber orchestra augmented by harp, glockenspiel, tambourine, and piccolo, that together gives it a bright neo-classical feel, rather than anything from the early nineteenth century of the Glinka tale. However, the very opening re-composes the opening of the famous Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture, this time clothed in Respighian Ancient Airs and Dances garb, which provides a nice foil to the rumbling first entry of the soloist and sets the tone for the remainder of the movement, a discourse between the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed orchestra and the low songful rumblings of the bass soloist. The second movement, an adagio, opens with the harp before quickly being joined by the soloist; together, they produce an elegantly wistful aria of great beauty, with the whole thing being completed by a playful final movement that ends with the double-bass playing in its highest register. As far as double bass concertos go, this is as pleasant and enjoyable as they probably get and here receives tremendous advocacy from the soloist, Leon Bosch, a South African-born but British nationalised, double-bass player (with the ASMF, Hallé, Philharmonia orchestras, amongst others) and now, occasionally, a conductor too.

The sixty-five-minute symphony with which it is coupled is, of course, a very different beast. In the marketing blurb, comparisons are made with Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, which I’m not sure is entirely helpful for any listener hoping to find the Romantic ardour of Rachmaninov, although make no mistake, de Hartmann can almost “do Rachmaninov” as well as that master himself when he chooses to (just listen to his Piano Concerto for ample evidence of this) and there are certainly movements in this score of similar high romanticism. However, this is a large-scale symphony written in the grand Russian tradition and premiered in 1935, so while the comparison is not some without merit, the composer’s own description of it as “humanity bewitched mechanically” points more to the driving, mechanical rhythms of Prokofiev than anything quintessentially by Rachmaninov. Where de Hartmann certainly differs from both those two composers is with his orchestration in this symphony which, in addition to large wind, string and percussion sections, together with celesta, piano (for four hands) and two harps, three saxophones appear in this score in addition to the brass. I am amazed by de Hartmann’s skill with the orchestra, such is his ingenuity in creating some quite astonishingly original and heavy-duty sonorities.

Cast in four movements, it opens with a crescendo on timpani that leads straight into a mournful solo for bassoon – the language here is pure fin de siècle decadence, before the main allegro gets underway and the style changes, the music now driven along by muscular rhythms very much in the style of Prokofiev in his own Second Symphony. Occasionally, the music does break into a more lyrical vein where de Hartmann achieves some most unusual colours using this large orchestra, often utilising the saxophones with the piano sparkling in the background. I especially liked the way the first movement ended with the return of the solo bassoon once more intoning mournfully, while the orchestra this time swelled underneath it, darkly glittering like moonlight catching the sea at night. This movement sets the tone for the whole work, where driving percussive elements are offset by moments of great lyrical beauty, all orchestrated with real imagination. A similar pattern can be seen in the second movement, a scherzo, where now the orchestration coruscates, the piano shimmering in the background with cascades of harps, before the driving rhythms once more reappear, gradually gaining weight as well as added menace, until it all dies away and ends in will-o’-the-wisp sparkle.

The third movement is the emotional kernel of the work, an andante that starts with shimmering strings and menacing growls from the orchestra which hint of great emotions but are, at this point, instead expressed in huge sonorous chords. They hint at a melody, before the glitter and sparkle of the scherzo reappears to underpin a solo saxophone (sounding more like a clarinet than anything else), which takes those fragments of melody, soulfully and pensively trying to join them together until, out of nowhere, the violins take it over and the music in an instant blossoms and swells with genuine magic as the melody is now revealed in its full glory. Not for the first time with de Hartmann, I am left feeling that he could have mined a golden vein of sublime melody even more, but I do admire the way he has cleverly built up the music to that point in three distinct stages and how, eventually, when the melody does return to close the movement, it is then clothed in the sonorous chords of the opening as well as the sparkle of that second subject. I find it all very clever, extremely memorable and genuinely moving.

If the final movement starts in heroic heavyweight mode with those driving rhythms now seemingly propelling the music towards victory, the music only fitfully strays into the major key thereafter and most certainly doesn’t on the final page, the whole thing ending on a note that seems to suggest that the mechanics, mentioned by the composer, have not just bewitched humanity, but conquered it.

Overall, this is a hugely interesting symphony, uniquely orchestrated with occasional moments of breath-taking beauty. I’m not so sure if it is quite a great and forgotten masterpiece, nor is it on the same level as Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony with which it has been compared; a more apt comparison would have been with Glazunov although, in my opinion, de Hartmann’s symphony is better than any of the nine Glazunov wrote and contains enough special moments to prompt me to return to it again in the future to listen to purely for pleasure. Coupled with an unusual concerto, both of which are performed with tremendous panache and dedication by the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra under Theodore Kuchar and all captured in glorious sound, this release is highly recommendable, both to listeners who enjoy early twentieth century romantic symphonies, as well as those curious to discover the music of de Hartmann.

Lee Denham

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