For years, Brahms's music bored me stiff, with the exceptions of the first piano concerto, the double concerto, the Schicksalslied, the Vier ernste Ges”nge, and the motets. I would literally fall asleep during performances of the symphonies. I wholeheartedly concurred with George Bernard Shaw's assessment of the German Requiem: "borne patiently only by the corpse." Mind you, I could analyze his music six ways from Sunday. Technically, I could tell you what went on. I simply didn't care. Even worse, I didn't see why Brahms thought anyone should care. Did it bother me? At some level, yes. I knew that a lot of listeners smarter than me loved Brahms, and I knew exactly how clueless I was. Fortunately, people kept playing Brahms for me, whether I wanted them to or not, and after about three decades, light finally broke.
It's not quite that bad with me and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, but it comes close. I admire the man tremendously. An artist in the Third Reich, rather than flee the country, he remained in a kind of internal exile, opposed to the regime (when such a stance usually brought fatal consequences) and refusing to allow any of his works to be performed or published. He kept composing and putting away his finished work for as long as it took to remove the Nazis from power. After the war, he revised much of it. In the early Forties, he studied with Webern, but he never crossed over to the serialist or dodecaphonic camp. Instead, he generalized their principles and applied them to his essentially post-Wagnerian chromaticism. Some have called him an heir to Bruckner, but I don't see it myself beyond a penchant for solemnity and the symphony. A mini-boom in his music seems to be taking place in Europe. He died, relatively young, in 1958.
The music demands much of a listener. Unlike Bruckner in his symphonies, for example, Hartmann writes extremely tight, gradually bringing out relationships between apparently dissimilar thematic groups. His artistic tone is serious as a cancer ward. In a way, he reminds me of the Schoenberg of the chamber symphonies. But Schoenberg's high seriousness comes from an obsessive reverence of musical tradition, while Hartmann's seems moral or ethical, like Berg's. Schoenberg usually seems to me to comment on music itself, Hartmann on humanity.
The Symphony No. 2 (Adagio) works with a theme that slips and slides, like a Middle Eastern riff, around a minor triad. The theme resists symphonic development, in that it doesn't really lead anywhere (it begins and ends on the same note), and yet Hartmann manages to generate authentic symphonic movement, mainly through progressively varying dynamic and tempo, almost always in parallel. The slow music is soft, the fast music loud, and the symphony proceeds from soft to loud, slow to fast. Hartmann builds a long span of this progression, reaching the climax more than three-quarters through, at which point he recaps the opening. The music really grips. It gradually dawns on you that almost every idea in the symphony relates to that one theme, slightly hidden by some extremely distinguished variation and contrapuntal maneuvers. Also, in a brilliantly-conceived coda, we seem to go through the entire symphony at warp speed, before the orchestra basses settle on a single, soft note.
The fourth symphony, for strings alone, revises a work from his "exile," for strings and solo soprano. Through a quirk I really don't understand, the fourth symphony was completed and appeared before the third symphony. The liner notes don't help. The first movement is yet another adagio, which, though slightly longer than the second symphony, seems to go on for days more. The "black-and-white" color of the strings make already bleak material bleaker, and there's no delight in the athleticism of strings, as in Stravinsky, Bartók, or Hindemith. Just when you think the music will take off with a bound, Hartmann puts the kibosh on it, and we're back to pure dirge -- songs from the Slough of Despond. Toward the end, a solo violin comes in with some very beautiful stuff, which should flower into something that lifts the material to a new level, but never does. I can't deny the movement's seriousness of purpose nor the composer's attention to detail, but it all strikes me as thick and heavy, with very little purposeful motion.
Things pick up in the second movement, a savage allegro, which alternates with a mournful L”ndler. It seems a Mahlerian update. This movement interests me far more than the others, but compared to something like William Schuman's fifth (also for strings), it comes over to me as pretty small beer. The third-movement finale returns to the Great Dismal Swamp, even to the extent of borrowing some of the thematic material of the first movement. Here, the music takes the form of a slow march, with contrapuntally imitative episodes. But the material wasn't really all that distinctive or distinguished to begin with -- not to me, at any rate -- and though Hartmann gets his music to proceed with more impulse than in the first movement, I still don't really care much about either one.
The Concerto funËbreas its title suggests, another downerinhabits the same emotional neighborhood as the Berg violin concerto. Hartmann, however, gets the violin to sing more than does Berg. Indeed, this is my favorite Hartmann work, rising to great eloquence. My main objection to Hartmann is that so much of his music just seems to go by without sticking to you. Here, the writing for both soloist and string orchestra gets inside you, unlike so much of the fourth symphony. The music amounts to more than the attitude of grief, no matter how genuinely felt. There's real poetry here. The first movement sings a gorgeous lament. The second movement allegro has the sharp edge of somebody like Shostakovich, without stooping to imitation (in fact, Hartmann's concerto predates both of Shostakovich's by a bunch). The finale Hartmann designates as a "Chorale (slow march)." To me, it comes closer to a chorale than a march, even a slow one, and again reminds me strongly of the finale of Berg's concerto, not in idiom or actual notes, but in mood, as the violin meditates solemnly above the string chorale.
Conlon, Cologne, and Spivakov give all these works terrific performances. I heartily recommend this disc to Hartmann fans and to Hartmann novices like me. I compared Conlon's reading of the second symphony to Dohnányi's with the Cleveland Orchestra (coupled with a magnificent account of Mahler's Ninth, on Decca 289 458 902). As you would expect, the Cleveland players performed stunning feats of playing, getting so soft, for example, they flirt with the border of non-hearing. Dohnányi emphasizes the garish, Expressionist aspects of the score, while Conlon stresses the links to the Late Romantic symphony. Dohnányi clocks in much earlier than Conlon but, curiously enough, achieves far less coherence and sense of forward movement. Indeed, on the basis of this CD, I think Conlon the current major champion of Hartmann. Praise goes to Spivakov as well in the concerto for breaking through Hartmann's characteristic reserve without stepping over into caricature. The recorded sound, though less "layered" than Dohnányi's Decca and a little too forward for the violin soloist, is nevertheless quite good.
S.G.S. (February 2003)