Bach, orch. Goldschmidt
Awake, the Voice Commands
Mediterranean Songs [UK premiere]
Symphony No.3 in A, Op.68
Mark Le Brocq (tenor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 26 March, 2003
Venue: BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London
Berthold Goldschmidt and Egon Wellesz both enjoyed long lives – BG 1903-96 and EW 1885-1974, born in Hamburg and Vienna respectively. Both fled to England before World War II, BG in 1935, EW in 1938. Both then made their homes in England and had careers beyond composing – BG as a conductor (in 1964 he premiered Deryck Cooke’s first ’performing version’ of Mahler 10), and EW’s musicological work was noted for his research into Byzantine chant; he was also a writer and editor. Goldschmidt stopped composing for two decades and more – he resumed creativity in his last years when a great deal of interest was taken in his work. Wellesz wrote continuously and notched up nine symphonies, all post-war.
This excellent Maida Vale concert culminated in Wellesz’s Third Symphony, which left a big impression. Beforehand, Goldschmidt’s piquant scoring of Bach’s chorale ’Wachet auf…’ rather put in the shade better-known Bach-orchestrations through being sonorous rather than bombastic, innately decorous rather than quirky. Just before his compositional silence, Goldschmidt completed the Mediterranean Songs for ’high voice’ (a soprano at the New York first performance in 1959). These six songs, settings of Byron, Shelley, Lawrence Durrell and others, are not entirely successful in that the vocal line, while warmly lyrical, rarely expands beyond the initial phrase. There are some lovely things though, certainly within the vibrant and image-creating orchestral writing, but as performed here, Mark Le Brocq, rather reticent (timbrally he reminded of Peter Pears at times), didn’t seem to make as much of the music as he might have done. A samey, shades of grey vocal expression emerged and eventually dominated; whether due to Le Brocq or Goldschmidt (most likely a combination of the two), it was only ’Nemea’ (Durrell) and ’Olive Trees’ (Bernard Spencer) that proved particularly memorable – both suggestively atmospheric and expressively haunting.
In these particular works by Goldschmidt and Wellesz, the influence of Hindemith is not difficult to detect – mellifluously assuaged by the former, more rigorously donned by the latter. A whole host of influences and references are brought out to help describe Wellesz’s style. An exploration of Wellesz’s symphonies is certainly desirable – numbers 4, 6 and 7 are on CPO 999 808-2 – but for the moment the Third (1951), a rare live performance of anything by Wellesz, is the focus. Forty minutes, four movements and – note – ’in A’, Wellesz 3 proved a real discovery – and rather more vivid than his biography or the programme note suggested.
The composer is cited as being the ’fourth’ member of the Second Viennese School – on the evidence of this symphony, he never attended the meetings! He is also referred to as ’Bruckner’s heir’ – much appreciated by Wellesz it seems – and while the majestic passages make this appreciable, Wellesz is actually closer to the post-Bruckner, somewhat bittersweet idiom of Franz Schmidt. Wellesz’s rigour is more akin to Bach in terms of absoluteness. To English ears the opening pseudo-fanfare material to the Third reminds of Alan Rawsthorne (himself influenced by Hindemith).
Taut organisation seems for Wellesz to have been a means to a communicative end. If the outer movements have no lack of fervour, it’s the slow movement and Scherzo that stand out. The former is deeply beautiful – plaintive, eloquent with lighter, pastoral touches – while the latter is extrovert and rapid, the horns taking us to Korngold’s Hollywood. Some lower-string pizzicato passages reminded of those in Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, and if the Finale is more forbidding – its growth to the clamorous coda like groping in the dark – it’s still music that really holds the interest; and one wants to hear it again. This confident BBCSO performance under a committed and expert Cristian Mandeal will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in anything up to a year’s time! Hopefully sooner rather than later.
The CPO CD mentioned earlier is strongly recommended – Symphony No.4 is cut from similar cloth to No.3 and has another beautiful slow movement; symphonies 6 and 7 are more ’advanced’ and somewhat terse, if well worth the effort of listening to them.
Suddenly, from ’forgotten’ composer, Egon Wellesz could well become a significant ’find’ – four of his symphonies suggest this is a cert.