David: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4 / Wildner, ORF Radio-Sinfonieorchester Wien

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Four years after CPO issued an initial volume of David’s invigorating symphonies (Nos 1 and 6 on CPO 777 741-2 – Gary Higginson’s enthusiastic recommendation can be read here), we now get a second helping in performances that were seemingly laid down some three years before those on that disc. In contrast to death and taxes, CPO’s recording and release schedule are a mystery to us all (and a source of frustration to some). Having said that, those of us who feared for the recording of rare repertoire when CDs first emerged should simply be grateful for the stalwart work CPO actually do; who, thirty-odd years ago, could possibly have foreseen complete recorded cycles of Searle, Frankel and Wellesz symphonies, to name but three ‘Brits’ off the top of my head?

I can only reiterate my colleague’s enthusiasm for David’s symphonies. On paper, an expectation of ersatz Hindemith or Hartmann would be quite understandable. Descriptions of David’s music have often suggested dry, competent academicism – the reality seems very different. There is a clutch of stylistic allusions and comparisons one could make, but there is a great deal that is fresh, inspired and enjoyable about these works. Above all, they don’t meander; they appear to be really coherent and well-formed. This was my abiding impression of the first disc, and it applies here too. Indeed, the splendid Second Symphony on this disc lasts almost three-quarters of an hour – and I would argue that is not a moment too long.

Scored for a big orchestra, this work was completed by David in the summer of 1938 while he was holidaying in the upper Austrian highlands. It begins with a mysterious, chromatic theme played on a solo flute, before other solo woodwind instruments take on the melody and the sound and structure begin to fill out. These understated chamber-like wind textures belie what is to come. There are a lot of exposed solo lines in this work, which hint at a hibernal solitude. However, frenetic strings eventually join the fray, projecting a virility which certainly evokes Hindemith. The material evolves naturally from the original theme (indeed David embraces monothematicism throughout his symphonic corpus) and is developed most skilfully. Vibrant colours are achieved via judicious washes of tuned and untuned percussion which sporadically perforate the fuller orchestral textures. The mood of this music seems untouched by the date and place of its provenance – although it’s neither ecstatic nor joyful, it instead projects a sense of cautious optimism. One passage at 9’13 strongly evokes Hindemith’s great Harmonie der Welt symphony - David’s work pre-dates it by 13 years! As the movement heads toward its conclusion, with more adroitly played solo clarinet and bassoon, the mood briefly becomes more melancholy and terse. But this is a momentary reflection; the busy string gestures soon return and see us to the movement’s energetic, meaty conclusion which, in turn, suggests this composer’s true hero, Bruckner. Notwithstanding David’s fiercely twentieth century idiom the spirit of the Linz master is rarely far away in this music.

The two central movements, largo e cantabile and scherzo, are both relatively brief. The note quotes a contemporary critic as detecting a hint of Pfitzner’s operatic masterpiece Palestrina in the slow movement. Adopting an arch-like structure, it is an enigmatic, ambiguous essay which generates an uneasy calm. The string writing at its centre is glowingly beautiful. Rhythmically speaking the Scherzo is even more Brucknerian; here I detect something approaching bucolic joy, albeit one that’s oddly claustrophobic. The central trio section delights in strummed string effects. Some of the wind writing is almost jazzy and certainly gloriously sophisticated. The main theme soon gets under one’s skin. It ends abruptly - seemingly a David trademark.

The finale is a massive and ambitious passacaglia. I found it deeply impressive, but it requires effort on the part of the listener. It portentously reconstitutes the main theme from the first movement, initially stated in lower strings, and presents 31 superbly contrasting and interesting variations, seamlessly woven together with richly imaginative orchestration and plenty of opportunity for the principals of the ORF band to show off. There is a suppressed and not necessarily benign power at work in this compelling and measured movement. The ORF orchestra may lack the weight and sheen of their better- known Viennese counterparts but they invest this strange music with real passion and exceptional commitment. I suspect it would require a cold heart for a keen listener not to be moved by it. While I certainly found David’s Symphonies 1 and 6 to be technically accomplished and compelling, I believe this Second Symphony trumps them both. Needless to say, one cannot help but repeat the oft-asked question: where has this music been all my life?

The Symphony No 4 is harder work; it is effectively David’s ‘War’ Symphony. He made three attempts at writing it: the second draft was destroyed with his home in Leipzig during an air-raid in 1944. In fact, according to the booklet note, David rushed back into his burning house and rescued his son’s parakeets and what he thought was the almost-completed symphony. As it turned out it wasn’t – he thus reconstructed it from memory in a third and final draft which he completed in 1948. The opening dirge-like theme emerges gradually in winds and strings in the opening, brief slow movement. The brass provide more ominous colours which add to the prevailing solemnity - given the circumstances of the work’s gestation, this material seems more than apt. Gary Higginson mentioned Rubbra in his review of the earlier disc and there is again a hint of that composer’s controlled power in this movement. The pent-up energy is released in the following Allegro moderato, a terrific and compelling fugue. It builds inexorably with ripe timpani rolls and imaginative counterpoint towards a brass-dominated conclusion which again ends abruptly. Another Brucknerian Scherzo follows. The first half of this is oddly wistful and as light as air, suspended by what the note describes as “…impressionistically shimmering sonic ornaments…”. The orchestration in the middle section thickens momentarily before serene harp figurations puncture the flowing strings and winds. The movement concludes with a mercurial sense of urgency. At the outset of the fugal finale, the material heard at the opening of the work returns, somewhat shorn of any residual sentiment. It generates a somewhat muted, but not unappealing momentum. The orchestration throughout the finale is both transparent and vivid although its ending is somewhat troubled and ambiguous.

David’s Fourth Symphony then is a terse and rather compressed affair. It doesn’t disclose its qualities immediately and is the archetypal tough nut to crack. I’ve given it a few listens now and although I am beginning to like it, I feel it lacks some of the easier-going charm of its coupling here. Wildner leads the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra in searching and committed accounts of both works, although I didn’t find their efforts here quite as polished as those on their previous David disc. As mentioned, that was recorded three years later and I suspect the orchestra by then had better found their way with this composer’s distinctive idiom. The recording is faithful without being spectacular and I am happy to report that CPO’s documentation is first-class – there is a wonderfully detailed introduction to these works by Dr Bernhard A. Kohn (the keeper of the David archive) which has been translated into perfectly comprehensible English (not always the case with CPO). As with the previous volume it includes several musical examples of David’s thematic material. I hope we aren’t kept waiting too long for the next instalment in this fascinating series.

– MusicWeb International (Richard Hanlon)

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 777577-2

  • UPC: 761203757725

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Johann Nepomuk David

  • Conductor: Johannes Wildner

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra