Johann Nepomuk David: Symphonies Nos.1 & 6 / Wildner, ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien

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J. DAVID Symphonies Nos. 1 and 6 Johannes Wildner, cond; ORF RSO Vienna CPO 777 741-2 (59:54)

Johann Nepomuk David (1895—1977) is one of those obscure composers that CPO seems to unearth with surprising regularity. Known during his lifetime as a pianist and conductor––notably of Bruckner––he worked mainly in the cities of Linz and Leipzig. His main love was the music of J. S. Bach; he studied Bach’s counterpoint in depth, and this influence completely permeates his music (or at least the music on this disc). Both symphonies are in four movements. The First made its appearance in 1937, while the Sixth was composed in 1954 and underwent two major revisions before reaching its final form in 1966.

The way David has taken Bachian counterpoint as a model is unusual in a symphonic context. This is neither straightforward pastiche nor a “wrong note” Neoclassical statement. Rather, the composer lets loose a stream of close-knit imitative polyphony, often in three parts or more, which then seems to run along, driven by its own momentum, until the contrapuntal lines collide into a cadence. Every movement works this way, even the Andante sostenuto of the First Symphony and the Adagio of the Sixth, though the fast movements benefit most from David’s distinctive approach. Springing from the simplest motifs, each of these symphonic movements could be described as “monothematic,” a term coined by the composer himself. If it all sounds dry and academic, the results are anything but. According to Bernhard A. Kohl’s helpful notes, David once proclaimed, “If music fails to reach an audience, it is not alive.” The surface of this music is colorful and attractive, while the relentless contrapuntal energy gives it real substance and, in such movements as the Sixth’s Adagio , “spirituality” (as Kohl puts it).

David’s use of instruments adds another layer of interest; on this evidence he was a clear and lucid orchestrator. The First Symphony features solo woodwinds and strings primarily, while the Sixth is marked by the use of brass and percussion to punctuate important moments. An interesting example is the recurring snare drum figures (also xylophone rattles) in the third movement: This lumbering dance, titled “Wiener Waltzer,” indicates through its scoring and harmony the composer’s acquaintance with Mahler and the Schoenberg school. At times the orchestral fabric suggests Alban Berg, albeit with a lighter touch.

Wildner and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra’s performances are very good, encompassing both the delicacy of the First’s playful passages and the weight of the climactic surges in No. 6. The sound balance helps to keep David’s thematic strands clear and separate at every dynamic level.

Once again CPO puts us in their debt. There are nine other symphonies by this composer (three of them, including a symphony for strings, are unnumbered), plus three violin concertos and concertos for flute and organ. I sincerely hope this issue marks the beginning of a David revival.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott


Johann Nepomuk David (1895-1977) was a German/Austrian symphonist in the neoclassical style of Hindemith, although he sounds quite different. His music is buoyantly contrapuntal and rhythmically muscular, but far less aggressive than that of his contemporary, as well as less harmonically acerbic. It freely mixes modal and more modern, dissonant harmony, even flirting with twelve-tone melodies now and again, but the music’s linearity, textural balance and clarity always maintain a firm sense of direction, with each movement coming to a punctual and satisfying end without a shred of bombast or rhetorical excess.

David was not terribly original for his period (the First Symphony dates from the late 1930s, the Sixth from 1954/66). The booklet notes speak of him within the German symphonic tradition as if the rest of the world, and the attendant advances in symphonic writing already realized in Scandinavia (Sibelius and Nielsen), England (Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Bax), France (Roussel, Magnard, Stravinsky), and elsewhere had never happened. Perhaps David was unaware of them, or didn’t care, but I doubt it. He was a big fan of Bruckner, and knew his Mahler too. Still, this is really good music: confident, beautifully crafted, and distinctive enough to deserve exploration.

You can tell from the magnificent opening paragraph of the First Symphony that David is a real symphonist, in control of the long line of thematic development. The work is scored for standard forces, with harp and extremely discreet but telling use of glockenspiel, triangle, and suspended cymbals. Unlike some of Hindemith’s later pieces, the rhythms remain fresh and fluent throughout. The music dances. The third movement of the more amply scored Sixth Symphony, for example, is a Viennese waltz, distorted through an almost Mahlerian lens, but the structure of the work overall recalls Hindemith’s Symphony in E Flat, with its brief preludial opening movement, elegiac Adagio, wicked scherzo, and substantial finale.

The performances here by Johannes Wildner and the Austrian radio orchestra sound remarkably assured. David’s contrapuntal style doesn’t give the players anywhere to hide, and they rise to the challenge with distinction. In busier passages, particularly where the strings are sailing along with intricate figurations at high pitch and volume in the Sixth Symphony, there are a few moments of temporary shakiness, but these aren’t terribly important. The music comes across well, and the performances are vividly engineered. This first disc in what I assume will be a new series is real find. Collectors take note.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 777741-2

  • UPC: 761203774128

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Johann Nepomuk David

  • Conductor: Johannes Wildner

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra