It is good to have a new edition of the complete symphonies of Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905–1963), especially one as well played and committed as this. Most of these performances were recorded live in concert, with the extra frisson that brings, especially to such emotionally searing music. They were taped over an intensive period of seven months with the same orchestra directed by six different conductors.
The received wisdom about Hartmann is that he began in the late 1920s and 30s as a cocky young Neoclassicist, influenced by Dada and jazz, went to ground as a vehement anti-Nazi during the war until, shattered by the events he had witnessed, he emerged entirely transformed as a composer of symphonic weight and depth, the greatest writer of adagios since Bruckner. While all that is basically true, it is an oversimplification. Five of his first six symphonies are revisions of music he composed in “internal exile” in the 1940s and some even predate the War. His Fifth Symphony of 1950 is a reworking of a Concertino for Trumpet and Wind Instruments from as far back as 1932–33. His First Symphony of 1947–48, “Versuch eines Requiems” (Attempt at a Requiem), seems to be an Expressionist cry of despair at the still fresh memories of the Holocaust––yet this powerful setting of anti-war verses by Walt Whitman first appeared under the titles Symphonic Fragment and Lament in 1936. (It underwent further revision in 1950.) Even Hartmann’s best-known work, the elegiac Concerto funebre for violin and string orchestra, dates from 1939. So, while the canon of symphonies from 1947 to 1962 represents the composer at his most emotionally affecting and technically accomplished, the musical material covers a wider chronological and stylistic ground.
Commentators remain coy about the existence of the earlier works that Hartmann so comprehensively revised. Presumably these are still extant, and if he were a bigger name in the pantheon no doubt we would have had recordings of them by now. I would certainly like to hear the 1938 work on which the Fourth Symphony was based: a Symphony for Solo Soprano and Strings, with a setting of Epitaph for a Warrior instead of the instrumental Adagio that replaced it. I wonder whether Hartmann removed the vocal section because in hindsight it seemed too close to Mahler––one of his early musical heroes––particularly if the poem was a translation from the Chinese. (Confucius wrote a poem of that title, but I don’t know whether it is the one Hartmann set.) In any case, Hartmann’s revisions strike me less as an attempt to position himself as the voice of post-War German music than a pragmatic decision to improve his earlier work by bringing it into focus with a more highly developed technique. And why not? None of the music he sketched during the war had been played. One such piece, the Sinfonia Tragica of 1940–43, finally received its premiere in 1989 and has been recorded twice, although I have not heard it. In the numbered canon only the Second, Seventh and Eighth symphonies were entirely new works.
It was very unfortunate that the composer died at the comparatively early age of 58 before he could produce a Ninth Symphony (if we don’t include the early Sinfonia Tragica). His final, uncompleted composition might well have been the basis for a “Ninth”: it is a single-movement setting of a poem by Jean Giraudoux for baritone and orchestra, Gesangaszene, written for and subsequently performed by Fischer-Dieskau. Ironically, the opening lines of the poem are: “This is an end of the world. The saddest of them all.”
Recordings of the eight numbered symphonies have been released twice in complete editions. In 1980, a vinyl set was released on the Wergo label (the label associated with Hartmann’s publisher Schott) and transferred to CD in the early 1990s. It also includes Gesangaszene. No details are given of when the Wergo recordings were originally set down; probably during the 1970s but possibly even earlier. The composer’s friend and champion Rafael Kubelík conducts them all except the First (Fritz Rieger), Third (Ferdinand Leitner), and Seventh (Zden?k Mácal). Kubelík recorded the Fourth and Eighth symphonies with the Bavarian RSO for DG in 1967 (available in a marvelous DG box of his “Rare Recordings”); these may be the same performances as those in the Wergo set. Between 1993 and 1997, the German 20th-century music specialist Ingo Metzmacher recorded the symphonies for EMI with the Bamberg SO. These performances were reissued recently in the company’s cheap double-pack line, but the initial releases were more imaginatively coupled with works by other composers. For instance, the Fourth Symphony for strings was paired with Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Ressurectionem Mortuorum for winds and percussion; the First Symphony tellingly came with Martin??s Memorial to Lidice and Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, and the Second and Fifth symphonies were coupled with Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Symphony (1951–53) and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Since then, among others, we have had highly praised recordings of Hartmann’s Fourth Symphony from Christoph Poppen (ECM), the Second and Fourth from James Conlon (Capriccio), and the First and Sixth from Leon Botstein conducting the London Philharmonic (Telarc). Last but by no means least, back in 1955, when the Sixth Symphony was brand new, a gripping performance of the work was recorded by Ferenc Fricsay and the RIAS Symphonie-Orchester of Berlin for DG, in clear mono sound. (This was reissued in 2005.)
The new set from the Netherlands Radio Orchestra is by no means dwarfed by the competition. For all Kubelík’s authority, his recordings sound a little elderly these days––not to mention Fricsay’s––and some of Metzmacher’s versions (notably symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 5) strike me as clinical and over-analytical, not helped by sound that is rather one-dimensional. (His Seventh and Eighth are the best recorded of his set.) The Netherlands orchestra is well balanced and closely miked as in a superior radio broadcast, and the performances gain in dramatic heft from being recorded live.
Symphony No. 1 under Stenz has great immediacy, as it must, with alto Pessati bringing fervor to her pointed singing of Whitman’s lines––although she is not as formidably stentorian in the lower register as Doris Soffel was for Rieger. The poetry includes extracts from “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”––also set by Hindemith, Sessions, and others––but they are sung in German translation, and annoyingly no English text is provided.
Symphony No. 2, “Adagio,” was the first all-new post-war work Hartmann produced. It is soulful in the opening and closing sections, particularly in the extended lament of a solo saxophone (touchingly played here). The symphony is not simply one long adagio: It gradually speeds up and then decelerates in the main central section, which is notable for intricate textures and contrapuntal vigor. The Third covers an even greater stylistic range: in two movements, and similarly conceived in arch form, it incorporates a quirky little march dominated by tuned percussion and a passage of busy fugal activity before turning into a leisurely Bruckerian adagio. Both symphonies are played with sensitivity and tight ensemble under the capable American conductor James Gaffigan.
Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 are studio recordings, but for Stenz the orchestra brings the same “live” level of commitment to the Fourth. The violins are driven rather than polished in their high, exposed lines. At the end of the first movement, a solo violin holds a stratospherically high harmonic as the lower strings play their quiet coda. Stenz stretches this out so much that the violinist has difficulty maintaining the note, but it’s a risk worth taking. Kubelík in his DG recording does not underline the moment––it is, after all, the end of the movement, not the end of the symphony––and Kubelík’s ideally poised soloist is more distantly balanced. Schønwandt takes over for the Fifth, with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra (which presumably contains the same personnel as the main orchestra). They play this “Sinfonia concertante” with enjoyable gusto, but here I prefer Metzmacher: He understands that this symphony is the odd one out. At just under 16 minutes it reveals little if any of Hartmann’s angst, but revisits a discarded pre-War soundscape of sharp textures and rhythmic momentum. The composer even quotes Stravinsky, another of his early influences: we hear a close variant of the opening bassoon solo of Le sacre du printemps played evocatively on a muted trumpet. Metzmacher’s band zips through the piece with a punchy, light touch. In this case, Metzmacher’s clinical approach is an asset.
The Sixth, in two lengthy movements, returns us to the adagio form in what is arguably the most representative example in the composer’s output. With its searching string lines, restless tonality, and massive climaxes, the first movement resembles the music of Allan Pettersson, although Hartmann’s percussion-tipped textures are less cluttered. The second movement is a savage Toccata, allowing the composer to stretch his contrapuntal wings. Compared to its predecessors, the Sixth makes a bigger statement in every way. The performance under Poppen is tremendous: energetic, searing, and full of menace (though Fricsay is not to be missed either).
By the time of his Seventh Symphony (1959), the various influences and aspects of Hartmann’s previous work had coalesced to produce music of substance and individuality: with contrapuntal energy, searching lyricism, command of orchestral color, plus a sure sense of formal balance. The first part (of two) is a vigorous allegro that could accurately have been titled Concerto for Orchestra. A probing solo cello opens the second part, Adagio mesto, which then leads to a riotous scherzo-finale that even incorporates a piano obbligato. In this particular adagio, Hartmann comes closer to Mahler than to Bruckner: There is a tangible feeling of farewell about it. Vänskä, no stranger to symphonic masterpieces, directs a disciplined and moving performance. No. 8 covers similar territory in a more detached way––Hartmann finally feeling the influence of the anti-emotional new guard? (Their influence is clear in the expanded range demanded of the clarinet.) In some respects the composer deconstructs materials that have served him well for a decade, and it needs a smart conductor to keep the Eighth Symphony cohesive. Metzmacher is just that. This performance is as tightly shaped as his earlier one on EMI. (Good as they are, Kubelík’s Bavarian musicians of 1967 do not sound entirely comfortable with the idiom.)
I have nothing but praise for the Netherland Radio PO. Their response to these great conductors is immediate and thorough, and they bring a richness of tone to bear whenever it is required. The warmth of the brass is a notable feature in sections of the First, Third, and Eighth Symphonies.
Hartmann revitalized the Austro-German symphonic tradition in the mid-20th century, at a time when the symphony was famously “dead.” Boulez and Stockhausen had no time for his vast canvasses, but he knew what he was doing. From the vantage point of 2014 we can see that the revoutionaries of half a century ago were writing in a stylistic cul de sac. Their music is not to be dismissed, but too often they and their imitators discarded all the historical bathwater––and we know what is liable to happen in that scenario. Conversely, Hartmann’s output has gained in stature with time. The fact that it is now far removed from the events that colored it does not diminish its power to speak to us, which is all the more reason to celebrate this excellent release.
Symphony no 8by Karl Amadeus Hartmann Conductor:
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra,
Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1960-1962; Germany
Symphony no 7by Karl Amadeus Hartmann Period: 20th Century Written: 1957-1958; Germany
Symphony no 6by Karl Amadeus Hartmann Period: 20th Century Written: 1951-1953; Germany
Vital Modernist WorksMay 13, 2014By Donald Mintz (Trumansburg, NY)See All My Reviews"Hartmann was one of the great composers of the mid-10th century, and a giant of the symphony on a level with Shostakovich. These are not easy works, and though written (or revised) after World War II they are a part of a history little known in this country: that of men and women who went into "inner emigration" and completely withdrew from any form of public life or utterance during the Hitler years. Hartmann wrote for the desk drawer during the period, supported, it appears, by his in-laws. When he emerged after the Nazi defeat he became a major force in the revival of serious composition in Germany. He died young, however, and remains little known outside of Europe. The First Symphony with a part for alto or mezzo-soprano that uses poems of Walt Whitmanmuch less overblown in German translationmay be a way in if only because of the association with words. The performances are splendid, the recording excellent."Report Abuse