Weingartner
König Lear – Symphonic Poem, Op.20
Symphony No.1 in G, Op.23
Basel Symphony Orchestra
Marko Letonja

Recorded in August 2003 in Casino Basel Musiksaal
CD No: CPO 999 981-2 [CD/SACD]
Duration: 57 minutes
Reviewed: November 2004
Whenever works by a great conductor turn up, it’s best to dispel the idea that if the composer hadn’t also been a great conductor then his music might have remained hidden on the library shelves. This CD features the music of Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) and is the first in a projected series of his entire orchestral output played by his one-time orchestra.
The King Lear symphonic poem (1895) was Weingartner’s first big work. The booklet-note – of which more anon – draws attention to the debt Weingartner owed to Liszt and also quote the composer’s thoughts on the work. For example we have: “The introduction shows us the king in the fullness of his might and grandeur … Cordelia steps into the growing confusion … The rain pours down, the storm rages over the heath … Ravens fly shrieking over the sky”, and so on. This is a symphonic poem in sonata form and lasts for over 22 minutes. To be honest the thematic material and many of the developmental passages are simply not memorable enough to sustain such a span. In addition, while there are elements of Liszt in the work, there are also echoes of Tchaikovsky and Dvořák, and this really is a piece of second-rate grandiose Austro-German late-romanticism.
The First Symphony from 1896 is more successful and has the character of a warm and lyrical serenade. The opening Allegro moderato grazioso even has echoes of early Mahler. The woodwind writing is very beautiful and gently plaintive. But on the negative side there are some very stodgy and aimless moments in the first movement’s development section that come perilously close to note spinning. The second movement Allegretto alla Marcia is thematically and rhythmically closely linked to the opening of the first movement. Two-thirds of the way through there are a series of chorale-like fanfares that are very arresting and the extended cadence before the final chords is suitably subdued. I haven’t heard another performance of this work, but while the tempo markings are very similar in these two movements, I would have liked more punch to the march theme.
A similar problem affects the Vivace scherzoso, here the trio section is very slow and risks the whole thing sounding like ‘Semprini Serenade’. Towards the end of the trio there are a series of dying falls in the woodwinds that do seem to be a repetitive feature of Weingartner’s music. In the finale, Allegro viva, there is a first theme that relies heavily on rich blocks of chordal string-sound and the second subject has typical fanfare-like woodwind embellishments. This movement is the least convincing in that it sounds very foursquare as though if in a creative straightjacket.
The symphony is definitely worth hearing and the symphonic poem does have a certain picturesque grandiosity that would be worth an occasional airing. The Basel orchestra is another excellent provincial band that may not rival the great orchestras, but doesn’t let the side down either. Letonja’s conducting is good, but I suspect that, say, Chailly would have found more variety and life.
The sound as both SACD and CD has excellent presence and depth, with a degree more sparkle and dynamic extension in the SACD format. Balance is good, being not too forward, with the vital woodwind parts superbly defined. There is however a problem with the English translation, in that European speech marks have not been changed to the English symbols. Also the symphonic poem merits a page-and-a-half of notes and the symphony only a column. But, all in all, a disc that is well worth investigating.

 

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