Wellesz: Persisches Ballet; Four Songs Of Return / Keuschnig, Ensemble Kontrapunkte

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WELLESZ Persian Ballet. Sommernacht. Movement for Chamber Orchestra. Suite for Violin and Chamber Orchestra. 4 Songs of Return. Ode to Music Peter Keuschnig (cond); Christine Whittlesey (sop); Adrian Eröd (bar); Josef Hell (vl); Kontrapunkte Ens CPO 777 5752 (60:40)

Hard to imagine, but in the stuffy, donnish, steamed-pudding world of Oxford academia, there resided from 1938 one member of the exotic Second Viennese School: Egon Wellesz, a pupil of Schoenberg’s and future scholar of Byzantine music, is a composer primed for being rediscovered. His shorter works, if nothing else, would sit well programmed next to a Mahler symphony, and for the wary listener, I reckon he is the way in to Berg and early Henze. Either way, he is certainly not heard enough, especially outside of Austria, and there are worse places to start than with this album of almost all his works for chamber orchestra, all new to me. If these are world premiere recordings, then cpo certainly keeps quiet about it, as I certainly could not find any other recording of the works included here.

Straight away we are thrown into the still, nocturnal world of early Schoenberg with Sommernacht , a setting of Detlev von Liliencron’s poem. With echoes of Strauss in the horn writing it is very much a product of its time (1909, then revised four years later), and a fine setting of the evocative text’s depiction of stillness and nature’s force. Although his diction is not ideal, Adrian Eröd’s beauty of phrasing and tone makes a fine case for this early work.

After the fascinating, atonal miniature Movement for Chamber Orchestra, written in 1920 but not premiered until 1980, we then hear the most substantial work on the program. Also composed in 1920, Persian Ballet is a lively 20-minute stage work, taking its action from scenes from Persian miniatures, and although less atonal and angular than the previous track, it is an innovative score, by turns languid, exotic, and chirpy. The tone grows ever darker, even military, with use of piano punctuating the ominous tread to unnerving effect.

In contrast, the playful, neoclassical suite for violin and chamber orchestra from 1924 sounds as if written by a different composer. I promise I didn’t cheat, but after detecting hints of Stravinsky and Milhaud, I then read in the booklet that Milhaud, a good friend of Wellesz’s, was an important influence during this period. Its sun-dappled, easy charm is a world away from the chilly, moonlit worlds heard before, but Wellesz, it seems, was always open to change. The Four Songs of Return , settings of his friend Elizabeth Mackenzie’s poems from 1961, yet again show how Wellesz never sounded out-of-date, with song settings that would not be out of place next to Henze’s concurrent work. These atonal, sparsely set texts are given committed performances by Christine Whittlesey, whose dramatic, slightly edgy soprano is ideal for the jagged lines. Greek antiquity is evoked in the final work here, Ode to Music (1965), a German setting of Pindar’s Pythian Ode . Less spiky than the Songs of Return , it is nevertheless a harmonically inventive little song, making the most of the small forces. With its classicism and hints of Wellesz’s earlier, Viennese work, it is music that both looks back and forward.

All the works of this marvelously unstuffy music scholar are performed with real expression and beauty by Peter Keuschnig and his ensemble. The sound is superbly clear and balanced, giving real clarity to these multilayered scores. The notes and essays are also a model of their kind, although the poem translations are, awkwardly, not printed together. Every time I stumble upon something by Wellesz, I am eager to hear more, and it is for composers like this that cpo exists, and this volume does everyone proud. More, please.

FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 777575-2

  • UPC: 761203757527

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Egon Wellesz

  • Conductor: Peter Keuschnig

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Ensemble Kontrapunkte

  • Performer: Adrian Eröd, Christine Whittlesey, Josef Hell