I am drowning in a flood of delightful new releases that will enrich your spring listening. However, this month I will concentrate on several outstanding 20th-century symphonic cycles.
First, a complete set of Rued Langgaard’s 16 symphonies on the Dacapo label in wonderful sound, with gripping performances by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Thomas Dausgaard. When CPO completes a project like recording all of a composer’s symphonies, it most laudably puts them in a handsome box and offers them at a big discount. Therefore, these seven state-of-the-art CDs can be found new on Amazon for less than $70, far below what they first cost together as individual releases.
Langgaard (1893-1952) was a highly original figure who, despite (or perhaps because of) his eccentricity, wrote some startlingly visionary music. He is hard to place: I think of him as Denmark’s answer to the great British visionary eccentric, Havergal Brian. During his lifetime, Langgaard was largely ignored by the Danish music world, so he simply went his own wild way. What we have here is far more than a curiosity; Langgaard’s music is passionate, stirring, and highly colorful. It can be mystifying and hair-raising at the same time, wandering among styles and through centuries. The subtitles to some of the works will give an idea of their expressive content: Mountain Pastorals (No. 1); Awakening of Spring (No. 2); Fall (No. 4); The Heaven-Rending (No. 6); Yon Hall of Thunder (No. 10); Belief in Wonders (No. 13); and The Sea Storm (No. 15).
In his early days, Langgaard seemed to follow Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. They later drop into the background, and the influence of Carl Nielsen’s music comes to the foreground. Occasionally, Langgaard reverts to a reactionary style that sounds like a hearkening back to Karl Goldmark. The massive forces Langgaard assembles and so effectively deploys will also call to mind Mahler. Anyone who aims this high sometimes fails, and there are patches of banality and bombast, but they are few. Langgaard’s music is fascinating — I guarantee you will not be bored. In fact, some of this music is unforgettable. Thanks to Dacapo, Langgaard’s day has come. This is a very special release.
I have nothing but high praise for CPO for employing the box strategy and now offering all nine symphonies of Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) together on four CDs for a reduced price (CPO 777 183-2). The Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Gottfried Rabl, gives this sometimes magnificent, sometimes difficult music full measure. Wellesz was a student of Schoenberg, so I expected nothing but thorny, angst-ridden music from him. However, it seems that he remained — at least through the first half of his symphonic oeuvre — true to his Viennese roots every bit as much as did Mahler before him. I am bowled over by the First Symphony, written when Wellesz was already 60 years old. It’s fascinating that he did not undertake the symphonic form until that late age and that, when he did, he wrote an essentially Mahlerian work in 1945, when the rest of the world had turned against such music. The first movement contains some magnificent fugato writing; the third is as beautiful as anything written in Mahler’s lineage, without what Franz Schmidt called Mahler’s "cheap novel" effects.
By the time of Wellesz’s Fifth Symphony (1955-56), the 20th century — or, more especially, Schoenberg — had caught up with him, and tonal relationships begin to disappear into the dodecaphony of his teacher. From then on, the music becomes tough, fractured, and fragmentary. However, Wellesz, even in this transformation, remains intriguing. Overall, I would say that Wellesz, unlike Mahler, was not a first-class melodist. He was, however, a master contrapuntalist, enabling him to take an even undistinguished theme and build it into a major edifice. That is a kind of greatness; it is certainly genius. Anyone interested in 20th-century music in both the First and Second Viennese schools, and the bridge or break between them, should listen to this release.
Another 20th-century symphonic cycle has reached completion in the Dutton label’s traversal of Richard Arnell’s six symphonies. (Alas, not in a box, and quite expensive individually.) I have gone from reluctant listener to avid fan of Arnell’s music. While I found his massive Third Symphony a lot to digest, I finally grasped its ambitious idiom and have gone on to devour the other Dutton recordings with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Martin Yates. Arnell’s time has finally come — and none too late, as he is still alive at 92. Now I can only wonder how works of this magnificence and of such noble striving could have been overlooked for so long, particularly in Great Britain, where they are given to doting on even their third-rate composers. Arnell is decidedly first-rate.
On Dutton CDLX 7217, Arnell’s First Symphony presages all that is to come in an already accomplished way. His last symphony, which accompanies it, is more coiled, compressed and explosive, like a late Havergal Brian work, though less jagged and angular. On Dutton CDLX 7184, the Second Symphony is paired with a huge and hugely enjoyable Piano Concerto.
In Symphonies Nos. 3 (see review here), 4, and 5 (4 & 5 on Dutton CDLX 7194), Arnell seems to be working with variations of the same basic themes — some of the same underlying thematic material that keeps resurfacing at climactic moments. It is music of enormous tumult. There is always an underlying excitement and the sense of reaching for and finally achieving something magisterial. There are moments of almost Bruckernian magnificence.
The beginnings of both Nos. 4 and 5 are tremendously exciting. No. 5’s first movement has in it a reaching for the ecstatic that is reminiscent of Edmund Rubbra’s great symphonic works. Only after great striving does it reach a state of exultation. The andante in No. 5 sounds as if it is out of one of the brilliant orchestral interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes. Arnell’s facility with orchestral colors reminds me of both Britten and Arnell’s American friend, the great film composer Bernard Herrmann. In fact, there are moments of cinematic extravagance in Arnell’s music that make me want to hear his film scores. One also detects the influences of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and a hint of Martinu. Aside from Rubbra and Britten, the other major British influence on Arnell is clearly William Walton, traces of whose great First Symphony can be heard.
The earnestness of Arnell’s symphonies may leave the impression that he is without humor. His ballets, The Great Detective and The Angels (on Dutton CDLX 7208), prove otherwise. They are delectable, somewhat puckish works that show how easily lovely melodies flowed from Arnell when that is what he wanted. It is here that one hears the light touch from some of Prokofiev’s ballet music.
These three cycles of relatively unknown symphonies prove the 20th century to have been far more musically interesting and rich than many may have thought. If works like these are only just now surfacing, what still may lie beneath?
Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.