The Eight Symphonies:
No.1, “Versuch eines Requiems” [1937/48] *
No.2, Adagio for large orchestra [1946/50]
No.4, for string orchestra 
No.5, Sinfonia concertante 
* Cornelia Kallisch (contralto)
Bamberg Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: October 2001
CD No: EMI 5569112 (3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 22 minutes
If there was ever any doubt that Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-63) is the most significant German composer between Hindemith and Henze, this magnificent set of recordings should banish that doubt for good. Further, after listening to this impassioned, dramatic and anguished music – hugely energetic, brilliantly orchestrated – that grabs one by the scruff of the neck and makes you listen, one can only hope that Hartmann’s forthcoming centenary in 2005 will provide a good enough excuse for much wider exposure than has so far been the case.
What are the reasons for Hartmann’s neglect? His music has featured rarely in concert programmes in this country, and CDs generally; for that matter, he’s not very often heard in his native Germany either. Like his younger protégé, Hans Werner Henze,Hartmann was a very vocal anti-fascist; unlike Henze he chose not to exile himself in another country but – although still living in Munich – self-submit to a sort of internal exile during the reign of the Third Reich. Hartmann refused to tow the party line or take part in professional musical life, either withdrawing or not allowing performances of his works. Only after Hitler’s fall and this considerable personal sacrifice did Hartmann begin to receive anything like the public recognition he deserved; much of his music though had to wait years for a performance, someremaining unperformed at his tragically early death in 1963.
Hartmann’s self-criticism, together with his tireless work on behalf of his colleagues and students (he founded the famous ’Musica Viva’ concerts in his native city), means that his catalogue of works is by no means large: two string quartets and some smaller chamber and piano works, four concertos, one full-length opera, Simplicius Simplicissimus, and a handful of orchestral pieces … apart from the eight symphonies. He became dissatisfied with much of his early music and began his compositional career again by re-composing/re-constructing his entire symphonic output, thereby creating all kinds of problems for future generations of performers and musicologists, which in some cases have only recently been solved. The first six symphonies have their origins in the 1930s!
The heartfelt Symphony No.1, ’Attempt at a Requiem’, is the only one of Hartmann’s symphonies to include a voice – beautifully sung on this recording by Cornelia Kallisch. Already evident here are typical Hartmann characteristics – dynamic extremes, militaristic, violent outbursts of awesome power contrasted with a rapt, sad stillness, a dense teeming polyphony and, above all, a remarkable orchestral mastery that quite literally took my breath away after not having heard these pieces for a long time. The contralto sings lines from Walt Whitman’s ’Leaves of Grass’, the words sadly relevant to Hartmann’s situation – “I sit and look at the sorrows of the world and upon all oppression and shame”. In the first movement, ’Misery’, a restrained recitative-like passage, with finely articulated cold chords, contrasts with violent brass and percussion. The purely instrumental ’Theme and Variations’ third movement shows Hartmann’s invention at its keenest; the precision of the orchestral playing – Metzmacher is alive to every rhythmic inflexion and smallest change in dynamic – is superb. The fourth movement, ’Tears’, is the emotional heart of the work, a stunningly beautiful lament, its falling phrases and almost Mahlerian tragedy comes over remarkably well – not least because of Metzmacher’s care with the accompaniment which could so easily overcome the soloist in her lowest register.
Symphony No.2, ’Adagio for large orchestra’, is a compact 15-minute work building from a long, mournful saxophone solo, music full of climaxes and tempo changes, again finely handled. Exposed and demanding instrumental solos are characteristic of Hartmann’s symphonies, not least in No.3, rising through the orchestra from double bass, to string quintet, string orchestra to explode into a virtuoso fugue (the composer’s description and an entirely accurate one). The pacing of Metzmacher’s interpretation becomes even more striking here – Hartmann’s increasingly anguished climaxes could become in lesser hands just over-powering; here and especially in the extraordinary Sixth Symphony, without loosing any tension, each is controlled and singular. The closing ’Adagio’ of No.3 contains some of the most beautiful playing of the set and one of the saddest endings in all music.
Symphony No.4 is an incisive work for strings alone, demanding agility and considerable stamina; needless to say, these requirements are more then met in this performance. Symphony No.5 derives from an earlier trumpet concerto and is in many ways the lightest of the set. The ghost of Hindemith hovers, as well as looking forward to Henze. Scored for winds, brass and lower strings, the Fifth is cast as a concertante/divertimento entertainment; the angst and passion of the earlier works is missing though the rather sparse and desolate slow movement briefly threatens a return.
Symphony No.6 might well be described as the masterpiece of the set, the only one to have been heard in London (twice in twenty-five years!). The two large-scale movements prove to be an ideal foil – the large orchestra is mostly used sparingly, flowing lines pass amongst the orchestra, the development is slow and elaborate. The hair-raising polyphonic second movement begins with a brass and percussion fanfare and continues with a series of fugues that are themselves variations. Opulent percussion writing, harp, piano (four hands), mandolin – all mixed in a huge, turbulent pot. Balances are perfect, duets and trios tumble over each other (shades of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra occasionally). The playing is stunning and, again, successive climaxes are handled with great skill so that, somehow, something is reserved for the ending. Why this work is not acclaimed as a twentieth-century orchestral showpiece par excellence I cannot imagine.
Symphonies 7 and 8 herald a new beginning – sadly a short-lived one as the composer died shortly after completing No.8. Both are a little less tense – perhaps as a result of a calmer political situation – and continue to favour two large contrasting movements; in both the melodic construction is broad and confident, chamber music textures are common place – in short, they represent the work of an assured, mature composer. Again, much virtuosity is demanded from the orchestra – not least from the percussion section.
These are remarkable works that anyone with even a slight interest in twentieth-century music should want to explore; and certainly in performances such as these, which are unlikely to be bettered.