Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

EGON WELLESZ Symphonies, Quartets & Choral Music

Symphonies Nos. 1 to 9 complete; Symphonischer Epilog
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gottfried Rabl

CPO- 999 998-2 (CD)

This oeuvre, re-released by CPO as a boxed set, has given me a great deal of uncomplicated, not too musicological pleasure.

We had occasionally caught a Wellesz symphony on the radio, but sampling them now was a fresh experience and it was not long before I had listened through them all, and some twice.

I nowadays far prefer hearing music I don't know as against trying to compare new recordings of canonic masterworks with older favourite recordings. And surely Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) deserves special consideration and regular live/radio performances, as a distinguished refugee musician and musicologist whose later life was all spent in England; his second symphony is titled The English.

Conscious of the weight of tradition, he was sixty before he felt ready to embark on the first symphony and it is, unsurprisingly, true to his Viennese roots, Mahler and late-Romantic/Expressionist masters. But there is no Brucknerian/Mahlerian length; his orchestral works tend to be forthright and compact - rather as are those of Havergal Brian.

There are many reviews of these discs separately, first time round, to be found by searching the Web and they show considerable ambivalence. Most poignant, and revealing, is Lewis Foreman in Music Web. He researched the BBC's evaluation of No 2 in 1949, the (to Wellesz un-named) assessors including Rubbra: ‘A powerful work written by a master-craftsman - - It should certainly be performed’; Alwyn was not so keen. ‘ - - a scholarly work – erudite, rather than musical; - - scoring is generally competent without showing any original flair - - I cannot recommend it with any enthusiasm’; Berkeley " - - ponderous and rather conventional - technically it is exceedingly well done - - I think it should be broadcast.’ It was indeed broadcast two years on, after which Maurice Johnstone (who he, now?) reported: ‘I heard two thirds of it. Long-winded, pretentious, dull, unoriginal - - orchestration not more than competent – I do not think it will take root.’ That cannot be said of the later symphonies which are in a more progressive idiom; the individual discs each couple early and later works.

Sixty years on I welcome CPO's continuing support of this composer and congratulate them for the recording quality and, especially, for the clear and helpful insert notes of Hannes Heher and the extensive work on the scores done by conductor Gottfried Rabl. English record collectors should support posthumously this important adopted composer who brought so much to this country and to Oxford. Another who comes to mind and deserves more frequent performances and recordings is Roberto Gerhard (1896- 1970), a Spanish exile who contributed so much at Cambridge, who used to be performed and broadcast by the BBC, but is rarely heard now.

Peter Grahame Woolf


Wellesz String Quartets

Artis Quartet of Vienna

Nimbus NI 5821

A welcome release of chamber music by Egon Wellesz (1885-1974), a Viennese refugee composer who spent most of his life as an academic in Oxford, continuing to compose the while, but with few performances. He had studied with Schönberg, but remained on the sidelines and never became a devotee in the inner circle.

Quartet No 3 (1918) took cues from baroque models "? to shut out contemporary cares" (Calum MacDonald). With a clear D minor as its centre, it finishes with 'a kind of contrapuntal gigue'; all in all an impressive work which has a distinct voice (although the commentary draws attention to Debussy/Ravel likenesses). Wellesz was never one to push himself, his No 3 was 'put aside' and never got performed until 1977.

The other two here are well written exercises in 2nd Viennese School mode, No 4 anticpating the manner of Berg in his Lyric Suite. No 6 was composed in Oxford, 1947, lighter and with Schubertian 'grazioso' in its language.

Whilst those two are well written and enjoyable to hear, I found the earlier one the greater discovery; it would make for a welcome reception in any string quartet's recital programme.

Recommended to collectors who are explorers of the early/mid 20th century...

Peter Grahame Woolf

Wellez Choral Music

Another disc which collects music of great integrity, including two Masses. The earlier and larger (1934) is important and enduring; tonal but wide ranging in its harmony and emotional depths.

An aspect of this symphonist's work which should not be overlooked; recommended



Some other varied responses to Wellesz's symphonies:

You want to like Wellesz, and I found myself trying very hard (and largely succeeding) when considering the first release in this admirably performed cycle of symphonies (for my review, type Q6788 in Search Reviews). Indeed, I still like him, but the passage of time is dimming his luster and the thrill of making new discoveries is fading fast. The music reeks of sincerity, attempts to cover a fairly wide emotional range, wastes no time in working its way through largely traditional forms, and displays the composer's assured technique at every point. And yet on repeated listening the result sounds not more satisfying, but less, as if there's a certain disparity between what the music wants to say and what lingers in the memory afterward of what actually has been said. - - . Certainly for collectors, Wellesz is worth getting to know. What happens after that first handshake, however, I suspect will vary widely - - David Hurwitz

Symphonies Nos. 4, 6, & 7
CPO- 999 808-2(CD)

- - with every newly recognized and performed composer from this period that a legacy of fantastic richness still awaits discovery. - -= music history as currently practiced, particularly for Germany/Austria, needs a thorough re-write now that we can actually listen to previously unknown and unheard composers, discovering what was really happening in the period from Mahler's death to Hitler's rise. As for Wellesz, Orfeo also has released his marvelous pre-exile opera Die Bakchantinnen, and together with this disc they mark him out as an artist of the first rank. The next installment in what will be a complete Wellesz symphony cycle is due out shortly, and I can hardly wait. - - David Hurwitz

Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5
CPO- 999 999-2(CD)

Like the previous ones, this fourth installment in CPO's Wellesz symphony cycle is a bit of a mixed bag - - it's atmospheric enough listening, not particularly difficult either, especially when the music is presented with such excellence and devotion by Gottfried Rabl and the Vienna Radio Symphony. CPO's large-acoustic recording gives the orchestra solid presence and impact, particularly effective in Symphony No. 3's powerful first movement. Victor Carr Jr

Egon WELLESZ (1885-1974)
Symphony No. 2 & No. 9
CPO 999 997-2

Egon Wellesz came to England after the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on 9 March 1938, and it was as a refugee from Nazism that he spent ten years in Oxford during the Second World War and after. - - The four movement Second Symphony is certainly an approachable and immediately involving piece, from the first movement’s Brucknerian opening to its Mahlerian second subject, and its tuneful scherzo, slow movement and finale. Yet for me it is ultimately an unfulfilling work which never seems to draw the sum of its glorious parts to a satisfying conclusion. - - the Ninth Symphony is a remarkable score and has its own rewards – the sound is more luminous thanks to Wellesz’s scoring in points of colour, and the gaunt lines and abrasive dissonance evoke a drama, intense and threatening which grips from the outset - - the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra certainly rise to the challenge, with playing of poise and intensity. - - I look forward to the third volume of Gottfried Rabl’s sympathetic and long overdue championship of Wellesz’s symphonies on CPO with impatience, when presumably we will have either the First or Third Symphony.
Lewis Foreman