HARTMANN Symphonies Nos 1-8
Why a cycle of Karl Amadeus Hartmann symphonies led by six different conductors? Challenge Classics reveals surprisingly little about the source of these recordings but a question filed down the information superhighway quickly reveals their provenance – a Netherlands Radio celebration of Hartmann to mark last year’s 50th anniversary of his death.
We all have our pet composers but Hartmann’s sound world is so brazenly all-encompassing and expressively rich that the question of his relative neglect, at least here in the UK, never goes away. He wrote eight bona fide symphonies that palpably evolved the form. He was in the thick of new-music activity in Germany, his Musica Viva helping promote the careers of emerging composers – Ligeti, Xenakis and Nono – while his own music occupied faraway terrain of its own. Sometimes Hartmann’s orchestration – obstreperous, shrill woodwind and shock-and-awe percussion – foretell Xenakis and Birtwistle, while everything he wrote was rooted in harmony that you could supply unfailingly with chord symbols: Mahler and Berg are never that far from the surface. He was an instinctive modern thinker but never a dogmatic modernist.
I thought it worth dwelling on Hartmann’s background to underline the challenges posed by his multi-headed music – answering, perhaps, my own question about his neglect. Of the six conductors chosen for this project, Metzmacher – whose 1999 cycle of the complete symphonies on EMI revived interest in Hartmann – has the most credentials, and his performance of the Eighth (1960 62) is rowdier and looser than his earlier view. Its compacted structure – two movements compressed into 23 minutes – gets to the essence of Hartmann: an ever-expanding viola solo in the first movement, lovingly shaped by Metzmacher, that bumps heads with a contracting structure, put against a tenebrous, menacing, stampeding march finale.
The Third Symphony (1949), despite another two-movement structure, represents Hartmann at his most expansive. The duties here fall to James Gaffigan, who claws open the symphony with a confidence not quite heard elsewhere. I like the way Gaffigan keeps each individual line in the opening string counterpoint alive and self sufficient – no mean feat – while the subsequent fugal crisis takes furious flight. Personally, I find the consciously neo classical Fifth Symphony (1950) – Stravinsky reaching over to shake hands with Eisler – the weak link in any Hartmann cycle, and Schønwandt, thank goodness, avoids soft-pedalling the piece.
Gaffigan’s take on the Second Symphony (1945 46) spills fearlessly between punky expressionism and Mahlerian lyrical repose, while Markus Stenz’s view of the Fourth (1947 48) deals well with its problematic narrative structure, the plain tonality of the last movement clearly shaken by the preceding atonal rough-and-tumble.