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Felix WEINGARTNER (1863-1942)
Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op.88 (1942) [62.02]
Maya Boog (soprano), Franziska Gottwald (contralto), Rolf Romei (tenor), Christopher Bolduc (baritone), Czech Philharmonic Chorus Brno, Babette Mondry (organ)
Basel Symphony Orchestra/Marko Letonja
rec. Casino Basel, 2 February 2012
CPO 777 103-2 [62.02]

Over the years we have had many reasons to be grateful to CPO for their recordings of rare and indeed totally obscure music, which have brought many hidden treasures to light. One thinks not only of their exploration of the byways of German music, but also of their willingness to undertake good modern recordings of the music of Joseph Holbrooke, for example. Their releases of obscure German operas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries parallels similar enterprise in the British field by such labels as Chandos and Hyperion.
 
Count Felix von Weingartner was one of that group of German conductors in the earlier years of the twentieth century following Mahler who also aspired to a career as a composer, but among whom only Wilhelm Furtwängler has established any sort of continuing reputation after his death. This disc is the seventh of a series of CPO recordings under Marko Letonja of his orchestral music, and enshrines the first recording of his final symphony, thus completing the cycle. It has taken some time coming; previous volumes containing the earlier symphonies were issued during the period 2003-2006. But this may well be because of the difficulties attending a performance of the work, which is not only Weingartner’s final symphonic testament but like Beethoven’s similar Choral Symphony features four vocal soloists and a chorus. Also it appears that the symphony was never published, and would therefore have had to be edited for this performance from the composer’s manuscript.
 
It must at once be said that a masterpiece like Beethoven’s Choral Symphony this is not. The vocal contributions come in the second and fourth movements only, but the shadow of Beethoven hangs heavily over the music throughout. Weingartner was a celebrated conductor of Beethoven and made a number of editorial amendments to the original scores many of which persist in performances to this day. That influence permeates every movement of this symphony.
 
One of the drawbacks of CPO’s releases in the past has been their tendency to commission long and often not very enlightening booklet notes from European academics. These have been rendered even more impenetrable by over-literal translations. Unfortunately here we have another example of this kind. The lengthy essay (over ten pages of quite small type) by Eckhardt van den Hoogen, translated with accuracy if not a totally felicitously English style by Susan Marie Praeder, tells us a great deal about the views of the author and not a lot about the music. One example from the first page of this essay is typical: “A fine materiality imperceptibly increasing with fineness, capable of being sympathetically roused by precisely synchronized musical waves and thus suggesting to us the idea that there must be ‘something more’ to art in general and music in particular? Limitations of space mean that such speculation cannot be continued here.” However these limitations do not prevent the author from continuing his speculations for a further nine pages of this sort of writing, in which the name of Weingartner is only mentioned once in the whole of the first page. It takes him some seven pages to get round to any discussion of the symphony which is the subject of this recording. A couple of pages before the end the author rounds on an unnamed critic: “The coda of the main part, as Weingartner waggishly communicates, ‘is designed after a sketch by Beethoven,’ which in praxi [sic] not even a donkey can hear with his donkey’s ears. One must have read this note in advance and then not as yet know as much as the critic for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung who in February 2012 reviewed the performance heard here as a live recording and in these five or six measures believed that she immediately recognized the ‘strongest’ effect of the whole symphony. That the same lady encountered Schubert, Mahler and (of all people!) Bruckner at every step was final proof of a gift that the likes of us have labored in vain to acquire to the present day!” Well, I suppose I may have donkey’s ears, but I can certainly hear reminiscences of Schubert, Mahler and indeed Bruckner - just listen to the very opening, with its echoes of the Te Deum - in this music. Never mind; I am sure once the author has had a good lie down in a darkened room for a while he will feel better.
 
After these circuitously parenthetical observations (you will see the style is infectious) one is pleased to say that this basically enjoyable if often imitative music is well worth resurrection. After the Brucknerian opening Weingartner goes off into a rather jolly fugato which he develops with a relish that Max Reger would have loved. In the second movement, the first of the vocal sections, he sets a sombre poem by Friedrich Hebbel which clearly reflects the period of the composition. Vocal writing is not his strong point; he seems to have little feeling for the natural inflections of the German language, and sometimes he repeats passages without much sense of the meaning of the poem either. At one point the mezzo delivers the line “Der Taube vernimmt das Wort” (The deaf man will hear the word) in a fairly straightforward passage with a phrase straight out of Schoenberg’s Gürrelieder, only to conclude with a very melodramatic inflection on the word “Wort” [track 2, 7.01]. The singing is not very inspiring, either; the soloists have workmanlike rather than glamorous voices, and they don’t sound as though the music has inspired them very much. This may simply be the result of the fact that this recording comes from a live recording, with no opportunities for retakes, and resultant simple caution. The choral contribution at the end of the movement, a rather moving chorale, sounds much more confident.
 
A similar feeling of caution is also felt in the orchestral scherzo which forms the third movement of the symphony. The orchestra, particularly the violins, sound as though they are sight-reading with very little opportunity for rehearsal. There are some particularly tentative passages in the fast skirling figurations; they are particular untidy around track 3, 0.55 and at several points thereafter. One imagines that more could have been made of the gorgeous melody that launches the trio section (2.58) with a greater sense of romantic fervour. One really wants an international orchestra like the Berlin or Vienna bands in music like this – but then, that is not likely to happen any time soon.
 
The lengthy 30+ minute finale sets two different poems by Carmen Studen (the composer’s wife) and Friedrich Hölderlin which have little in common with each other. It begins with a soprano solo ‘from above’ sung from the organ loft, and here Maya Boog produces some really nice tone. The transition to the main body of the movement seems to wander rather aimlessly if portentously - one finds oneself wishing that Weingartner would get a move on. When it does finally arrive at 11.50 one welcomes the fresh-voiced Rolf Romei who launches the Hölderlin setting of Hymne an die Liebe. Unfortunately the choir seem less happy here than in the second movement, with strained individual voices emerging (as at 14.50) from the texture. The whole delivery could do with more energetic rhythmic security. Maya Boog, now restored to the front of the platform, sounds much more tentative than earlier. Weingartner seems happier with Hölderlin’s regular rhythmic prosody, but a passage at 19.04 shows that he had clearly been listening to Mahler’s Eighth. A startling organ entry – with shades now of Saint-Saëns – launches the final section boldly. Weingartner - who has now got the bit firmly between his teeth - returns us at 25.05 to the Brucknerian figuration of the opening, with the strings now producing good solid tone and the performers as a whole rising to the inspired ecstasy of the closing pages. Boog soars over the assembled forces before a Beethovenian coda. Applause at the end has been edited out.
 
Those who have been exploring Weingartner’s music through the good offices of CPO will need no encouragement to add his last symphony to their collections. Others may find the work interesting and sometimes inspired, but might be advised to approach the composer through one of his earlier symphonies first. I would suggest starting with the Sixth.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey

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