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Wednesday, March 09, 2005
Two from CPO: Karol Rathaus and Richard Wetz
History certainly extended the fuzzy end of the lollipop to composers Karol Rathaus (1895-1954) and Richard Wetz (1875-1935). Both lived lives of professional and personal disappointment, both died relatively young, and both have been forgotten by the music world ever since. Wetz's, Iím afraid, is purely a sad story: a musical autodidact who never got a break, the obscurist in me would love to cut him some posthumous slack. Unfortunately, the music on CPOís CD, a violin concerto and two vocal works with orchestra, reveals little in the way of expressive breadth and formal control. A follower of Liszt and Bruckner, Wetz lacked the technique and imagination to do much more than pulse around on augmented triads. His orchestration has an appealing glow to it, but itís not enough to sustain serious interest.

Rathaus, however, is a find. A Jew who left Germany in 1932 shortly after embarking on an auspicious film-scoring career, he suffered many professional frustrations in Paris, London, and Hollywood, before settling down to teach at Queens College in 1940. CPO offers us his Second and Third Symphonies; the first dates from 1923, the second from two decades later. Both are fantastic and would flatter any orchestra willing to take them on.

Rathausís Second received its premiere on the same concert as Bergís "Drei BruchstŁcke aus Wozzeck." Bergís piece was the toast of the town, whereas Rathaus's left both critics and audience members sharply divided. It is a surprise to read about the piece being dubbed a "test tube" work, for nothing seems further from its tempestuous, passionate sweep than the laboratory. Its four movements, played continuously, sustain massive amounts of tension, and every release is earned and exhilarating. Rathaus curbs his thorny, atonal idiom through wide voicings that lend his music a spaciousness unique among his German contemporaries. While the music, especially the searing conclusion, boasts moments of breathtaking ferocity, Rathaus, like Mahler, knows when to be small Ė as in the beautiful duet for solo viola and clarinet at the end of the third movement. Wonderful orchestral moments abound Ė brass fanfares, percussion ostinatos Ė magical moments where the smoke clears, and a choir of woodwinds emerges playing pungent harmonies that would hold their own against any twentieth century composer. Rathausís Second, in other words, is a real symphony, one to stand right beside those of Sibelius, Prokofiev, and Shostacovich.

The Third is more relaxed, and, while I didnít find its every burst of sunlight convincing, it is still a solid piece. More openly lyrical, traditional, and tonal than the Second, Rathaus nonetheless never lets the expressive profile of his music get one-dimensional. The lush third movement does recall Rachmaninoff, but it seems to me this music is more multi-layered, more complex. The second movement, a bright Scherzo, always seems just about to tip over into the grotesque and ironic Ė yet it never quite does.

I have to confess that Rathausís music is so good, it left me giddy at times. Iím really not someone to get excited about dead, forgotten composers: Iíd rather give the living a chance. But these two symphonies are hot pieces. The imagination and technique are of a very high caliber, and the charisma and flair of the music is hard to resist. Highly, highly recommended.


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