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Friday, June 16, 2006
Gone But Not Forgotten
Requiem, Op. 50 in B Minor
Richard Wetz
Marietta Zumbült, soprano; Mario Hoff, baritone; Dombergchor Erfurt; Philharmonischer Chor Weimar; Thüringisches Kammerorchester Weimar; George Alexander Albrecht, conductor. cpo 777 152-2

Erich Zeisl
Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone; Cord Garben, piano.
cpo 777 170-2

Complete Symphonies
Wilhelm Petersen-Berger
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken; Norr köping Symphony Orchestra; Michail Jurowski, conductor. cpo 177 160-2

Sinfonia per archi
Kurt Atterberg
Camerata Nordica; Ulf Wallin, violin and conductor.
cpo 777 156-2

Siegfried Wagner
Roman Trekel, baritone; Michaela Schneider, soprano; Richard Brunner, tenor; Orchester und Chor des Opernhauses Hall; Roger Epple, conductor.
cpo 777 097-2

The German label cpo has done yeoman work in rescuing from oblivion first-rate works from the late 19th and 20-century repertoire. The recordings reviewed below represent just a small portion of this company’s magnificent catalogue.

Richard Wetz (1875-1935) is a composer who is largely unknown today, both inside and outside his native country of Germany. Even when Wetz’s compositions manage to get a hearing nowadays they are generally dismissed as being the products of an epigone of Anton Bruckner. This is hardly fair because even though Wetz’s indebtedness to Bruckner is obvious, there is no denying his harmonic complexity which extends far beyond the Brucknerian purview. Due to the Bruckner connection, however, Wetz’s music was much in favor during the Third Reich, so much so that Peter Raabe (1872-1945), president of the Reichsmusikkammer of the Propaganda Ministry caused a Richard Wetz Society to be founded in 1943 in the composer’s hometown of Gleiwitz. The guilt-by-association and the general post-War hostility to all things tonal undoubtedly caused Wetz’s artistic reputation to suffer considerably.

A symphonist of uncommon subtlety and technical expertise, Wetz’s Requiem is a strong contender for being the composer’s masterpiece. Composed in the final years of Wetz’s life, the work is less a reflection on the horrors of the First World War (or a premonition of the greater horrors to come in the Second) than a personal reflection on mortality. Indeed, the staggering proportions of the composition render it useless in a liturgical setting. Hans Polack in 1934 described the Requiem as “the personal confession of a pantheistic-feeling religious artist.” While deeply rooted in the thematic organicism of the 19th-century German Romantic style, the composition’s harmonies explore dissonant territories that go far beyond the Bruckner orbit. A masterful orchestrator, Wetz’s use of the bass clarinet and cello in solo capacities enhance the lugubrious nature of the work. George Alexander Albrecht conducts the performance with his usual inspired confidence and the assembled soloists and choirs are equal to the complex task that Wetz created. There are a few textual matters that are skirted around by the liner notes of the cd. In particular, Wetz’s omission in the “Domine Jesu” of the text “quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini eius” [“which once Thou didst promise to Abraham and to his seed”] is explained away as having no emotional interest for the composer. The real reason is undoubtedly far more sinister in that during the Nazi period Christian texts were almost always shorn of Old Testament references, especially those referencing the founder of Judaism. Whether this was Wetz’s doing or that of the censor is unclear. Nevertheless, it is a chilling reminder of the lasting negative effects on art when it is forced to adhere to the strictures of ideology.

Erich Zeisl (1905-1959) was an Austrian Jewish composer who was just starting to gain recognition in his native country when the Anschluss occurred in 1938. In 1939 he successfully emigrated to the United States where he settled in Los Angeles. At first, Zeisl sought work in the film industry and his uncredited work can be heard in movies ranging from The Postman Always Rings Twice to Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. It was serious music, however, that held the greatest appeal for Zeisl and was that to which he eventually devoted all of his time and effort. Zeisl was a gifted and fluent composer of lieder and was a master craftsman of miniature forms. The cpo recording of Zeisl’s Lieder, performed by the gifted baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and accompanied by Cord Garben), presents a wide range of Zeisl’s published and unpublished songs. Zeisl’s style is well within the traditions of Austrian lieder extending back to Schubert. While accessible, there is much wit and subtlety contained within the Old World charm that requires a sophisticated listener to interpret completely. The range of poetic texts that Zeisl utilized was quite eclectic. “Auf dem Grabstein eines Kindes in einem Kirchgang im Odenwald” and “Im Frühling, wenn die Maiglöcken läuten” are both taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Lieder with Lessing, Eichendorff, Goethe and Nietzsche texts are interspersed among songs that are light and cabaret-like in their settings. One of the real delights from this cd is Zeisl’s setting of Nietzsche’s “Ecce Homo” in which the furious triplets are so reminiscent of Schubert’s “Erl-König.”

I have earlier reviewed in these pages the excellent cpo recording of Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s Symphony No. 5 “Solitudo.” Now along comes the release of The Complete Symphonies and Orchestral Works of the same composer of which the earlier recording is just one cd out of a total of five. Peterson-Berger (1867-1942) is a household name in Sweden, but is little known outside of his native country. An acerbic critic and exponent of modernism, Peterson-Berger as a composer seldom ventured beyond an attenuated form of impressionism.

Of Peterson-Berger’s five symphonies and numerous orchestral suites, undoubtedly the most interesting work is his Symphony No. 3 in F Minor commonly known as the “Lapland” Symphony. This composition was inspired by a 1913 exhibition of Lapp culture in Stockholm that featured phonograph recordings of “jojk”, the wordless improvised chant sung by the Lapps. The use of various “jojks” as the thematic material for the symphony gives its melodies an unusual modal flavor. Likewise, there is throughout the work a rhythmic forcefulness—derived from the odd meters and ostinati of its source materials—that is very reminiscent of Bartok. The “Lappland” Symphony was very successful from its premiere in 1917 and was eventually performed by numerous orchestras throughout the world, including a memorable performance in 1927 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski. Michail Jurowski eloquently conducts all of the recordings of this monumental set which feature the Norrköping Orchestra (Symphonies 2-5) and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken (Symphony 1).

Another Swedish composer whose fame does not extend beyond his native country is Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974) several of whose works are represented in the cpo cd Sinfonia per archi. From the generation that followed Peterson-Berger, Atterberg was somewhat more conservative than his predecessors, but was nevertheless a subtle craftsman with an unerring instinct for traditional musical forms. Trained as an electrical engineer, Atterberg was an employee of the Swedish Patent Office for 56 years and as such, did not need to compromise his musical ideals in order to secure a living. Atterberg, a fine cellist, wrote most comfortably for strings in both chamber and symphonic settings. Oftentimes the composer obscured the distinction between his symphonic and chambers works. Indeed, the title work of the cd was originally composed as a string quartet. Focusing on a luscious string sound and thematic material derived from folksongs, the Sinfonia per archi is somewhat reminiscent of the String Serenades of Dvo?ák. The Intermezzo is a curious piece in that it was composed for the formal opening in 1921 of the new Patent Office in Stockholm. While Atterberg is probably best known for his string and chamber works, he was also keenly interested in dramatic music and composed five operas, none of which remain a part of standard Swedish operatic repertoire. The “Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra” attests to Atterberg’s keen dramatic sense and his ability—like that of so many other Nordic composers—to display a wide range of emotions within the context of miniature forms. Ulf Wallin conducts the generally conductorless Camerata Nordica with an intensity not always associated with music from Scandinavia. Additionally, he performs admirably as the soloist on the “Adagio amoroso for Violin and Strings.”

Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930), the son of Richard Wagner, was a significant opera composer in his own right. The composer of 18 operas, Siegfried had to contend not only with the legacy of his father, but the hostility of his father’s fanatical fans and the backstabbing of the loathsome Wagner clan. Although Siegfried was one of the most popular opera composers of his time, the Wagner family suppressed performances of his works after his death in 1930. It was not until the 1970s that further performances of Siegfried’s operas began to take place in Germany, with all prohibitions only ending in 2001 with the expiration of copyright protections. Sonnenflammen [The Flames of the Sun] premiered in 1918, was Siegfried Wagner’s eighth opera, and is here presented by cpo in complete recorded form for the first time. Led in performance by the young conductor and Siegfried Wagner devotee Roger Epple, the assembled forces of the Orchestra and Choir of the Halle Opera give a splendid and forceful reading of this sadly neglected work.

Sonnenflammen features a libretto by the composer who, like his father, always wrote his own operatic texts. Set in the Byzantine court of the cruel Emperor Alexios during the time of the Crusades, Sonnenflammen is concerned with the story of the Knight Fridolin who abandons his quest for the Crusade because he has fallen in love with Iris, the daughter of the court jester Gomella. Alexios has his sights on Iris; an assassination plot against the Emperor is foiled; and Fridolin is given the choice of execution or having his locks shorn and becoming the second court jester. Fridolin chooses the latter. Fridolin’s father visits the court and discovers that his son has been reduced to the status of a fool. Ashamed, Fridolin resolves to commit suicide. Crusaders invade the court, setting fire to everything; Fridolin mortally wounds himself; and Iris confesses her love to the dying Fridolin before the palace is consumed by fire.

Containing elements of his father’s Die Götterdämmerung, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah, Siegfried Wagner’s Sonnenflammen is a work of great psychological complexity, religious free-thinking, and Thomas Mann-like sexual ambiguity. Much has been made of the opera’s autobiographical subtext, with more than a little evidence to suggest that the Emperor Alexios was meant by Siegfried to represent his father. Siegfried’s pet name in the family was Fidi and is similar enough to Fridolin to assume an identification on the part of the composer. An Oedipal reading of Sonnenflammen seems inevitable and warranted. To be sure, this opera is a textbook study for The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. In any case, cpo has done a wonderful service by making this opera available in a complete recording.


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