September 6, 2019

  • Between Mahler and Korngold: Music by Karl Weigl


    Weigl: Symphony No. 1; Pictures and Tales
    Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Jurgen Bruns
    Capriccio 5365
    Total Time:  60:43
    Recording:   (*)***/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Composers who fall through cracks in time are often victims of any number of historical or personal circumstances.  Some die young just as there music becomes known only to be forgotten.  Others gain high recognition only to be overshadowed by new trends in a changing musical milieu.  For composers who lived through the beginning of the 20th Century, they found themselves forced to be ignored for their hold on to Romanticism, or they needed to move to the more atonal realms of composition.  Sometimes the music itself was often enough though to gain appreciation in their lifetime.  This is certainly the case with Karl Weigl (1881-1949).  Weigl was all but forgotten in the latter half of the 20th Century, despite his music being received well and promoted by the likes of Pablo Casals and Schoenberg.  His was a music born out of the Romantic period but he fled the Nazis landing in the United States where he would end up teaching at some Eastern music schools.  He became a US citizen in 1943.  Though well-respected, his music failed to gain a foothold in American concert music.  A fund set up at New York’s Manne College of Music insured that his music would be performed well past his death but it has only been recordings over the past couple decades that have begun to bring his music to a larger public.

    The current Capriccio release brings us two of his works.  Weigl was a student of Zemlinsky and so one can expect the music to have some of that color and lyricism of the latter composer’s work.  It falls into line with other Austrians such as Korngold (who was one of his students!) and Schreker.  This will no doubt heighten many listener’s expectations to explore these two earlier pieces.

    His Symphony No. 1 in E, Op. 5 (1908) essentially helped gain Weigl his first success abroad.  The piece was premiered in Zurich in 1910 and opened the doors for his music to be published by Universal Edition.  After a flurry of performances, it would not be heard again until a US premiere in 1982.  One would expect the symphony to be an extension of Mahlerian symphonic language whose seventh symphony also debuted that year.  There is some of that sensibility inherent as the work opens with its somewhat contemplative and pastoral quality.  The music has a post-Wagnerian harmonic exploration as well with ideas seeming to move smoothly from turn in the bend to the next.  The movement is filled with engaging melodic writing with some great horn moments.  The second movement scherzo features a fugue and seems rooted in the German Romanticism of Brahms and Reger, and perhaps a bit of Richard Strauss.  It opens with a rather interesting duet for bassoon soon taken on by the woodwinds as Weigl begins to add layers and interactions.  Listen though for those little horn “remarks” which would become a popular Korngold fingerprint.  The third movement shows the beginnings of the composer’s own orchestral style with interesting combinations and colors though it tends to go on a tad longer than one might wish.  A lively dance kicks off the final movement which also introduces march inflections.  The latter is also somewhat fugal in nature (again Reger seems to be a close kindred parallel to Weigl’s developing voice).

    The second work is an orchestral suite cast in six movements.  The Pictures and Tales, Op. 2 (1922) is an orchestration of his early set of descriptive piano pieces.  They explore a fairy tale realm whose opening movement sets the tone “Once Upon a Time”.  We are then treated to musical imagery for Snow White and the seven dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, a delightful little German folk song, a beautiful little lullaby, and a moonlit final dance.  The music is a rather fun and delightful orchestral piece, certainly worth reviving.  The piece premiered in 1924 and holds another dubious honor as being on a program in Vienna on March 10, 1938.  The Anschluss followed the next day and this was the last of Weigl’s pieces to be performed in his homeland as he soon emigrated.

    What one discovers here are two works that provide another window into the Austrian symphony and its development from Bruckner to Mahler.  Weigl is somewhat in the midst of the latter’s output and his symphony, while perhaps not quite as fascinating as Zemlinsky’s later essay in this genre, is still a captivating work of beauty.  Orchestrally, it seems to own much to Brahms with the composer beginning to show his own unique stamps as the piece progresses.  The suite gives us a window into Weigl’s orchestration and approach to writing for the large orchestra, somewhat inspired by Mendelssohn’s incidental music.  This is important to gain further connections to those of his students who would pick up on this and bring it to a wider audience through their own works.  Those interested in the development of film music will certainly find the suite most fascinating with its descriptive narrative music.

    The performances here are quite good.  Sometimes the recording feels just a little muddy in climaxes and it is also a quite dry acoustic which sometimes makes the brass have an odd recessed sound.  Bruns manages to infuse good life into the symphony and the shaping of phrases and detail to articulation is worth noting as well.  Certainly an important release that should find many eagerly exploring the other recent releases of symphonies by this important Austrian composer.