Deja Review Weigl Symph 5 BIS CD1077

Déjà Review: this review was first published in July 2002 and the recording is still available.

Karl Weigl (1881-1949)
Symphony No 5 ‘Apocalyptic’ (1945)
Phantastisches Intermezzo (1921)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Thomas Sanderling
World premiere recordings
rec. 2000-2001, Jesus Christus Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin, Germany
BIS-CD-1077 [64]

Like Korngold’s only Symphony (wonderfully done by James de Preist and the Oregon Symphony on Delos) Weigl’s Fifth is dedicated to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who died in April 1945). This tribute to the President of the country that had provided refuge to these two fluchtlings reflected the affection and high respect in which they held their saviour country.

Weigl was double-damned in 1930s Vienna – both a Jew and a Socialist. He had been fêted until the Nazis came to power. When it came, his fall was complete.

As Lloyd Moore’s fine notes point out, we can now gradually gain a truer and broader perspective on the range of German music of the first half of the last century. Korngold, Pfitzner, Schmidt, Weill, Hessenburg, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Schreker and Hartmann can be only loosely arranged in ‘schools’. The ‘what ifs’ such as Rudi Stephan (1887-1915), and Heinrich Bienstock (1894-1918) might well have further transformed the scene, but their lives were cut short by the Great War. These two were, in potential, just as significant as George Butterworth, Cecil Cole (celebrated in a recently released Hyperion CD) and Ernest Farrar (on Chandos).

Weigl is not a perfect fit with any school. The closest match is with Bruckner and up to a point with Franz Schmidt. Schmidt provided his own apocalyptic ‘symphony’ in the shape of The Book with Seven Seals, which predated the Weigl symphony by about a decade. Schmidt captures the ghastly and awesome horrors of the pestilential horsemen with a keener blade than Weigl (compare the Weigl’s finale entitled ‘The Four Horsemen’. The axle and anchor of this work is the Adagio, which, at 15:25, is only seconds shorter than the Evocation first movement. The Adagio proclaims lineage direct to the adagios of Bruckner’s last two symphonies, especially the Eighth. It is a serene iron and chain mail paean to tragedy. Powerful and eloquent, this is a statement shot through with golden strands represented by the soulful brass. The Brucknerian manner, this time, in craggy mode, is also encountered in the finale. So, just when you have made up your mind about this symphony, let me also mention how it starts. The score instructs the orchestral musicians to enter and tune up (all as an integral part of the work) then the conductor appears and cues three trombones and a tuba on a raised platform. Some of the hyper-lyrical manner of Franz Schmidt from the Second Symphony can be heard in the first movement.

Sanderling and the Berlin orchestra are dedicated, though I sensed a vague hesitancy in their playing which is not found in the tape of Stokowski rehearsing the American SO for the 1968 premiere. Such transient issues (completely absent from the great adagio, by the way) are nowhere to be found in their reading of the Intermezzo (initially the first movement of the Second Symphony). It is a flighty work with hints of Prokofiev and Dukas and with flashes of Bruckner along the way. The work has some kinship with the Comedy Overture recorded by his pupil Peter Paul Fuchs with the Baton Rouge Symphony [concert recordings only – unpublished]. Fuchs was not the only one to record Weigl. Fellow Vienna University student Frederic Waldman recorded the Weigl Violin Concerto with Sidney Harth and the Musica Aeterna orchestra in LP days.

We now need a complete set of the six symphonies. BIS have made an auspicious start.

Rob Barnett

Gwyn Parry-Jones also listened to this disc:

Composers expend a tremendous amount of inspiration and perspiration on the openings of works, particularly big, public statements such as symphony, oratorio or opera. Thus Karl Weigl’s Fifth Symphony, the Apocalyptic, begins with the orchestra tuning up; the conductor enters while this is happening, and signals to the brass, who intone a fanfare both angular and portentous. This is a stunning coup de théâtre, then; but such gestures have their serious drawbacks. The rest of the work has to live up to the level thus set, and we can all name works with wonderful openings which don’t quite bring it off. The best-known ones, in my book, are probably Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony – any additions?

I fear that Weigl doesn’t manage to satisfy the great expectations he arouses, either. There is not a single gesture in this symphony of 1945 which is anywhere near as radical and shocking as the opening, and therein lies the problem. The piece is in fact, for its time, a relatively conservative piece, its style unashamedly deriving from late Romantic German models. It has many beautiful and striking moments, but in a different sense from that extraordinary commencement.

Weigl was an Austrian Jew, who as a young man worked with Mahler at the Vienna Opera, regarding his years there as the most instructive of his life. During the Nazi years, he was, like so many Jewish artists, gradually blanked out, and, seeing the writing on the wall, he left for the USA in 1938, where he remained for the rest of his life. This symphony, composed during the darkest years of World War II, was dedicated to Franklin D. Roosevelt, in gratitude for providing the composer with a home and refuge.

There are four movements; the first, entitled ‘Evocation’, settles down into a broad, complex discussion, based on the brass fanfare theme mentioned above. The second, in the place of a Scherzo and called ‘The Dance around the Golden Calf’, seems a little tame for its title, inevitably calling to mind comparisons with Schönberg’s piece of the same title in Moses und Aron. The latter is able to fill his work with a blood-curdling sense of wild abandon, while Weigl’s is grotesque, almost comical at times, but nowhere near so convincing in its portrayal of evil at work.

The slow movement, ‘Paradise Lost’, is for me the most convincing, having many passages of great expressive beauty and intensity, as well as an ethereal coda, where the ghost of Mahler is felt near. Compare this ending to the closing bars of the first movement of the latter’s 10th Symphony, for example. The finale, ‘The Four Horsemen’ (of the Apocalypse, one presumes), again seems too mild to live up to its title, and, like all the movements, tends to go on too long for its material.

The Phantastisches Intermezzo contains probably the most convincing music on the disc. This is from 1921, the ‘Austrian’ part of Weigl’s composing career, as the informative booklet notes describe it. Like the symphony, it is rather protracted, but here, the material and the imaginative impulse seem to last the distance far better. This is the music of a composer still very much ‘in touch’ with the music of his time. The detailed orchestration has a French brilliance to it – I was reminded very much of Dukas – while the Romantic horn fanfares and chorale-like string passages once more recall Mahler. This is a movement that might justifiably find its way into the occasional repertoire of symphony orchestras.

Sanderling and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra perform manfully, with much fine individual playing from the wind section, and rich, disciplined strings. The recording is clear, but doesn’t produce a convincingly integrated tutti sound, which means that some imposing climaxes carry less weight and conviction than they need.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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