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Felix Weingartner
Symphony No. 3; Lustige Overtüre
Basel Symphony Orchestra; Marko Letonja

Review By Joe Milicia

  Felix Weingartner is best known as a conductor, most strongly associated with the Vienna Philharmonic, which played under his baton at various times from 1908 to 1936, though he was a favorite in England too, and won a rave from Brahms himself for a Berlin Philharmonic performance of that composer's Second Symphony in 1896. He conducted opera as well, and wrote musical treatises and memoirs, when he wasn't editing the writings of Hector Berlioz among others. But Weingartner was also a fairly prolific composer: seven symphonies, chamber music, several operas and other vocal works. The first four symphonies have recently been recorded by the Basel Symphony Orchestra — an appropriate choice, because Weingartner led the group (or more precisely its predecessor, the Basel Orchestra) from 1927 to 1935. Their CD of the 1910 Symphony No. 3 — a 65-minute work generously supplemented by a 10-minute "Merry Overture" — is an important discovery for lovers of late-Romantic/early Modern music. And it is spectacularly well played by the orchestra under its present leader, Marko Letonja, and splendidly recorded by CPO. (I've heard this SACD only in stereo, I should add.)

Weingartner was the first to record all nine Beenhoven symphonies, plus his own orchestration of the Hammerklavier Sonata. His recorded performances are known for their clarity, vigor, and a certain "intellectual" quality that might be contrasted with a warmer or more elastic (or fuzzier) Romantic style. His orchestration of Weber's piano piece Invitation to the Dance is brilliant, almost glittering, compared to the softer, more tender hues of Berlioz' more famous version. All those qualities of Weingartner as conductor and orchestrator are to be found in his Third Symphony, which certainly has echoes of many another composer, particularly Bruckner and Richard Strauss, though it's more "modern" and cerebral than the former and a bit less rhapsodic than the latter — think Ferruccio Busoni, for example.

It's for a big orchestra — quadruple woodwinds, six French horns and so forth, with an optional organ part (chosen for this recording) at the climax of the slow movement, and laid out on the grand scale of the late-Romantic symphony: a richly dramatic sonata-form first movement, followed by scherzo, adagio, and allegro finale. Themes transform and show up in new guises through all the movements. (Evidently there are private allusions as well: according to the very lengthy booklet essay, Weingartner chose the home key of E major because "in astrological myth" E is the sun, and it's also a combination of F and L, initials of Felix and the singer Lucille Marcel, whom he later married.) Orchestration is never startlingly original as in, say, Berlioz or Mahler, but Weingartner handles his large  forces extremely well, with never a sense of thickness or murk — there is always clarity, sometimes dazzle, and a sumptuous, burnished glow in the very Brucknerian yearnings of the slow movement. Clarinets, from the bright Eb to the mellow bass, are prominent, especially in the scherzo and finale.

The author of the booklet essay, one Eckhardt van den Hoogen, calls the Third Symphony "a work that only gradually can be grasped in all its depth—and after at least ten hearings I dare to state the judgment (knowing that it may bring me criticism, but no matter) that it has earned the attribute ‘significant' or ‘great' practically without any reservations." After about 10 hearings of my own I still hesitate to call the Third Symphony "great," but it continues to reward listenings, with many passages that stick in the mind. The scherzo makes perhaps the most immediate impact with its swaggering main theme and general exuberance. Van der Hoogen hears it as "extremely demonic, almost the caricature of a waltz, sounding like a dance around the golden calf," but I hear nothing of that: its muscular joy strikes me as more from the world of Beethoven and Bruckner than from that of Salome or Elektra. It would be an impressive encore piece for a traveling orchestra, if its 11-minute length weren't too much. The 19-minute Adagio is rewarding in its own way, with its gentle opening and inexorable building to more than one powerful climax.

The finale is curious indeed. Among its alternating themes are a spiky, leaping motif and a breezy, confident melody. After a complex interplay of themes, a suspenseful slowing down leads to a waltz version of a familiar 2/4 tune from Johann Strauss' Der Fledermaus — a tune heard early in the Overture and later sung by Eisenstein as he raves about the bliss his wife provides him. According to van der Hoogen, Weingartner later said he was honoring the city of Vienna with this allusion, but it's also easy enough to imagine an homage to Lucille (even though she was an American). Perhaps the Strauss melody is the "secret" theme of which all the other motifs of the symphony are variations — if so, I haven't sensed it yet. In any case, after some playful variations on the tune and the return of other themes, this complex symphony ends somewhat abruptly and oddly with an emphatic, very traditional-sounding E major chord, like the ending of a concert waltz.

The Lustige Overtüre, written soon after the symphony, starts out briskly in 6/8, followed by a gentler interplay of woodwinds, a Viennese waltz, and a mock-pompous march. The composer then plays with all this material in seemingly random order, with the waltz tune standing out. As with the symphony (which follows on the CD), the ending is rather conventional for a piece with one foot planted firmly in the Twentieth Century. Letonja and the Basel Symphony play it with panache, as if it were part of their regular repertoire, just as they give the Third Symphony a passionate commitment.

 

 

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