VIENNA PHILHARMONIC 20th CENTURY MUSIC - Volume I
HONEGGER: Symphony No. 5 "Di tre re" (Ernest Ansermet/Dec. 2, 1951) STRAVINSKY: Le Sacre du printemps (Igor Markevitch/April 26, 1952). JANÁCEK: Sinfonietta (Rafael Kubelik/March 3, 1955). WEBERN: Passacaglia, Op. 1. Six Movements for Orchestra, Op. 6 (Zubin Mehta/Dec. 3, 1983). BERG: Der Wien (Dorothy Dorow, soprano/Karl Bohm/June 1, 1969). SCHOENBERG: Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5 (Karl Bohm/June 1, 1969). SCHMIDT: Symphony No. 2 in E flat (Erich Leinsdorf/Oct.29, 1983). WELLESZ: Prosperos Beschwörungen (Bernard Haitink/Feb. 24, 1985)
ANDANTE AND 4080 (3 CDs) (F) (ADD) TT: 79:37 / 75:27 / 79:37

Andante offers the handsomest packaging in the disc business today—trilingual notes, copiously illustrated, with complete vocal texts in a bound volume, discs in individual sleeves, and everything boxed to boot. Library-quality of the highest order, in other words, despite a trivial introductory essay by Tim Page. Before considering the contents of this volume, a word about recorded sound and its source. Everything is monophonic from the archives of ORF, the Austrian Radio, and everything is a concert performance. The Vienna Phil, despite its international reputation, plays only nine Sunday morning performances a year, preceded by an open-rehearsal on Saturday afternoon: all personnel are members of the Vienna Staatsoper’s pit orchestra, 140 strong, and while self-governing in the strictest sense, the VPO’s first obligation is the Oper-an-der-Ring’s long and crowded season. With rehearsal time for concerts and recordings at a premium, their repertory is narrow by standards that prevail in peer orchestras elsewhere.

Quaintly perhaps, the “newest” music in this first volume of “20th Century Music (1951-1985)” is the oldest recording: Ernest Ansermet conducting Honegger’s then-recently composed Fifth and last symphony (subtitled “Di tre re”) in December 1951—a work he never did record commercially, although Serge Baudo, Igor Markevitch, Charles Munch and Neeme Järvi (surprise, surprise) were still listed in the Y2K Spring issue of Schwann/Opus (Vol. 11/2). Baudo, however, had disappeared in Schwann-song Vol. 12. This symphony is expressively the darkest of the composer’s five, and the densest, with a cynical scherzo that Mahler might have approved, yet some lovely lyrical writing elsewhere for strings where the VPO shine. The opening movement is played tentatively, however, and the audience did not, at the conclusion, let loose a roar of approval, as they did for Markevitch’s taut, almost neo-classic Rite of Spring five months later, despite a biff by the solo bassoon on high-D in the second measure, and some chancey ensemble elsewhere. At the subsequent Salzburg Festival of 1952 they repeated the performance, which Markevitch meanwhile had recorded for EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra in mono (and re- recorded in stereo some years later: see R.E.B.’s review of four Markevitch Rites, this one making at least his fifth on discs). But the greatest approval on Disc 1 was reserved for Rafael Kubelik’s impassioned reading of the Janácek Sinfonietta, vividly played by the orchestra, which by 1955 had conquered its Austro-Hungarian-Empire contempt for Czech, Moravian and other “provincial” musicians (what a pity this could not have been in stereo).

Disc 2 is devoted to the “Second Viennese School,” although the “newest” work is Berg’s concert aria Der Wein from 1929, in a riveting, pitch-perfect, vocally dauntless performance by soprano Dorothy Dorow at her absolute peak, with Karl Böhm conducting. On the same June 1, 1969 program he followed Der Wein with Schoenberg’s pre-atonal Pelleas und Melisande (a suitably Germanized spelling of Maeterlinck’s French original given the length, bloat, bombast and Angst of Schoenberg’s setting as finally revised in 1905—in effect a dry-run for Erwartung). Böhm leads the VPO in an opulently played performance, but I still as always continue to find the piece hateful. There are two token homages to Anton Webern, his Op. 1 Passacaglia and Op. 6 Sechs Stücke, conducted on the same December 3, 1983 program by Zubin Mehta, who manages to produce a violent outburst in the fourth Stuck, and a weight of sound in Op. 1 that sacrifices some of Webern’s detail. However, Dorow’s Der Wein follows and all is redeemed if not forgiven.

Disc 3 has an Erich Leinsdorf reading from 1983 to the manner born of Franz Schmidt’s charming Second Symphony finished seven decades earlier—the best to my thinking of the composer’s four, and a performance so superior to Neeme Järvi’s commercial version on DG with the Chicago Symphony that, mono or no mono, it is the winner by a knockout. Schmidt, a Staatsoper/VPO violinist who despised the Schoenberg school, was an admirer of both Richard Strauss and Max Reger. Fortunately, Strauss overpowered Reger in Symphony No. 2, which is a prize as much as Dorow’s Der Wein. The disc closes with Prospero’s Spells, the last work Egon Wellesz completed in 1936 before fleeing from Viennese antisemitism to England, where he spent the rest of his life as a beloved campus Prospero at Oxford University. Wellesz was a younger contemporary of Berg and Webern, but a rebel when “rules” got in the way of his creative instincts. Not all five “Spells” are of a quality or transparency, but the Epilog (“Ferdinand and Miranda”) is truly lovely, conducted with compassionate insight by Bernard Haitink for whom the VPO played at the peak of their form in 1985.

R.D. (October 2003)