Egon Wellesz – Symphonies, Volume 2 (CPO)

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.2, Op.65 (The English)
Symphony No.9, Op.111

Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Gottfried Rabl

Recorded in 2002 at Grosser Sendesaal, Funkhaus ORF, Vienna

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: December 2003
CD No: CPO 999 997-2

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 Wellesz’s style. An exploration of his symphonies is certainly desirable – numbers 4, 6 and 7 form Volume One of CPO’s 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 ’Bruckner’s 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 1’27” 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 Schmidt’s wonderful Fourth Symphony.

The first movement’s 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 isn’t standard repertoire. If the finale seems a tad rambling, it’s 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 Beethoven’s 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 Sessions’s ’end-works’. (Sessions also completed nine symphonies!)

Wellesz’s Ninth is emotionally searing, linear, its three movements culminating in a (relatively) long slow movement with intervallic remembrance of the closing adagios of Mahler’s and Bruckner’s respective swansongs. The end is a simple and very effective farewell.

Gottfried Rabl produces entirely sympathetic performances, tangibly recorded. Wellesz’s symphonies are urgently recommended. The remaining four are keenly anticipated.

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