Symphony No.2, Op.65 (The English)
Symphony No.9, Op.111
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in 2002 at Grosser Sendesaal, Funkhaus ORF, Vienna
CD No: CPO 999 997-2 Duration: Reviewed: December 2003
Egon Wellesz Symphonies, Volume 2 (CPO)
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Egon Wellesz enjoyed a long life 1885-1974. He was born in Vienna and fled to England before World War II, in 1938. Wellesz made his home in England and had a career beyond composing as a musicologist; he was noted for his research into Byzantine chant. He was also a writer and editor. Wellesz composed continuously and notched up nine symphonies, all post-war.
A whole host of influences and references are brought out to help describe Welleszs style. An exploration of his symphonies is certainly desirable numbers 4, 6 and 7 form Volume One of CPOs cycle (999 808-2), which proved a real discovery and whetted the appetite for more. The composer is cited as being the fourth member of the Second Viennese School on the evidence of his earlier symphonies, he never attended the meetings! He is also referred to as Bruckners heir a tag much appreciated by Wellesz it seems and while this reference can be discerned, Wellesz is actually closer to the post-Bruckner, somewhat bittersweet idiom of Franz Schmidt. Wellesz is no stranger to the compositional rigour of Schoenberg or the vivid melodic sweep of Korngold.
The motoric momentum of the Second Symphony, a masterly and absorbing four-movement piece from 1947-48, here lasting 42 minutes, grabs the attention immediately and yields at 127 to a blissfully beautiful second subject, one of those heaven-sent melodies, which recalls the chiselled beauty of Mahler 10 (Wellesz would only have known the first movement Adagio of this unfinished work) and the interior reflection of Schmidts wonderful Fourth Symphony.
The first movements contrasts are succeeded by a lively scherzo that has Brucknerian drive, and shows Wellesz as a contrapuntist of a very high order; the slow movement is exceptionally lovely one just smiles at its longing beauty and with some amazement that this isnt standard repertoire. If the finale seems a tad rambling, its full of ideas and just takes the listener with a warm embrace, certainly in those moments where an English reference seems a conscious tribute to his new home. Great stuff!
The 23-minute Ninth is a more terse and concentrated work, compositionally pristine, and a distillation of essentials. Wellesz joins Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Schubert (the Viennese connection), and others, by ending his symphonic canon with the superstitious 9th (and, by accident or design, Op.111 corresponds with Beethovens ultimate piano sonata). In terms of stylistic journey, one might find a parallel with Roger Sessions, save this example of late Wellesz is less complexly ornamental than Sessionss end-works. (Sessions also completed nine symphonies!)
Welleszs Ninth is emotionally searing, linear, its three movements culminating in a (relatively) long slow movement with intervallic remembrance of the closing adagios of Mahlers and Bruckners respective swansongs. The end is a simple and very effective farewell.
Gottfried Rabl produces entirely sympathetic performances, tangibly recorded. Welleszs symphonies are urgently recommended. The remaining four are keenly anticipated.