Austria—Karl Weigl

Austrian composer Karl Weigl (1881–1949), scion of a prosperous Jewish family, prospered in Vienna. Weigl, who had studied with Alexander Zemlinsky, worked for Gustav Mahler at the Viennese opera as his rehearsal conductor, an experience Weigl called ‘‘the most instructive period of my life’’. In 1910, he won the coveted Beethoven Prize for his Third String Quartet. In 1924, his symphonic cantata Weltfeier won the prize of the City ofVienna. The great conductors and artists of the day played his music—Wilhelm Furtwängler, George Szell, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, The Vienna Philharmonic, and the Busch Quartet.

It was Weigl who replaced Hans Gal as lecturer at the University of Vienna in 1929.

Some 10 years later, however, he had to flee the Nazi Anschluss. Weigl’s renown did not survive his voyage to the United States. He saw it coming. He had penned in his diary in 1937, ‘‘Zukunft dunkel’’ (future bleak). It was; he was practically forgotten.

Weigl refused to folow his teacher Arnold Schoenberg in his abandonment of tonality. Their close working relationship cooled after Schoenberg embraced his serial system. Rather, Weigl insisted, ‘‘As soon as a new form or means of expression is found, any number of fanatics stand up to proclaim the exclusivity of the new art form…

One must always repeat the obvious: firstly, conquering new means of expression does not make all former ones obsolete.’’ He went on to write six symphonies, several concertos (for violin, cello, and piano) and eight string quartets. To his great credit, despite their separate paths, Schoenberg had the generosity to write a letter of recommendation for Weigl in 1938, in which he stated that, ‘‘I always considered Dr. Weigl as one of the best composers of the old school; one of those who continued the glittering Viennese tradition. He truly preserves this old culture of musical spirit which represents the best of Viennese tradition.’’ And that is what we hear in abundance in Weigl’s Symphony no. 5 Apocalyptic Symphony, written in 1945 as a salute to the memory of Franklin Roosevelt. It is steeped in Mahler’s spirit and musical idioms, but also shows his kinship with Anton Bruckner and with Weigl’s contemporary, Franz Schmidt, who had written his own ‘‘apocalyptic’’ work, The 2094 Book of the Seven Seals.

Drop the appellation ‘‘Apocalyptic’’ from your expectations in listening to Weigl’s symphony because it is not over the top in the way the title suggests. It is extraordinarily rich and dramatic, but within the means of the composers already mentioned. Specific to Weigl are a couple of interesting touches. He begins the symphony with the orchestra tuning up—out from which then blasts a theme from the brass to bring order to the proceedings. I love this touch because, when first exposed to the orchestra as a youth, I thought that the orchestra tuning up was the actual start of the composition I was hearing. Also, Weigl sometimes generates power by compressing his melodies, which then flex themselves to muscle their way out of their confinement. Pressure reaches its release in the rapt adagio (more than 15 minutes in length) at the heart of the symphony.

Brucknerian in its breadth, Mahlerian in its style, this movement contains great music. In its still beauty, it is hard to find a comparison to it other than the sublime adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Stokowski premiered this work in 1968; gorgeous music like this was his meat. I would love to have heard what he did with it. However, Thomas Sanderling and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra sweep us away on a superb BIS recording (BIS-1077).

These same artists return in BIS’ issue of the Sixth Symphony (BIS-1167). The puzzle is that this gorgeousworkwent unperformed for nearly 60 years until the performances that led to this magnificent recording.

This rich 40-minute symphony is echt Viennese in that it completely inhabits the world from which Weigl had to flee. It sounds like Mahler without the neuroses, or a bit like Franz Schmidt in its nobility. Yes, for 1947, it was a bit anachronistic and that, no doubt, is why it lay dormant.

Now sleeping beauty has arisen and you must hear the meltingly lovely Adagio of this masterpiece by a man who clearly earned Schoenberg’s appellation as ‘‘one of the best composers of the old school’’.

For a glimpse of this man’s genius in the chamber music domain, listen to the Nimbus Records CD (NI 5646) of his String Quartets nos. 1 and 5, played by the Artis Quartet. The First Quartet is almost threequarters of an hour long and is entirely gripping and lyrically moving.

The precocity of Weigl to have written such an accomplished work at age 23 is extraordinary. Schoenberg understood when he wrote to the Rose Quartet: ‘‘He [Weigl] has composed a string quartet of extraordinary qualities . . . I believe this work is, because of its inventiveness and its extraordinarily earnest and well-crafted nature, a decidedly strong example of his talent.’’ These works are of comparable quality to Franz Schmidt’s chamber masterpieces and, like them, exhibit no sense of exhaustion or decay.

Pablo Casals said, ‘‘Karl Weigl’s music will not be lost. We will return to it after the storm has passed. We will return to those who have written real music.’’ Well, the storm has passed. So, as you will know or learn from listening to these recordings, it is more than time for more Karl Weigl—especially a set of all six symphonies and the complete quartets. A major revival is egregiously overdue.


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