This recording brings together Hartmann's best loved works: the Concerto Funèbre and the Fourth Symphony, with the short and less often recorded Symphony nr. 2 as a bonus. So, this package could have been an ideal introduction to this rather underrated composer. However, I cannot recommend this recording because of the unsatisfactory renditions. There is no doubt the Concerto Funèbre is one of the most beautiful violin concertos of the 20th century. Written in the fall of 1939, it captures the spirit of those fateful days with a mixture of solemn gloom and angular protest. Spivakov musters a warm, lustrous tone and takes a very deliberate approach, intent on wrenching every drop of emotion from the music. As a result, I am sad to say, this wonderful piece sounds trite, reduced to larmoyant salon music. This unhappy effect is reinforced by Conlon's leaden accompaniment. He really doesn't seem to have a clue about how to move the music forward. The Gürzenich Orchestra's gloriously cultivated sound, paradoxically, adds insult to injury.
The Fourth Symphony is a strange but rewarding work. Whilst the Concerto Funèbre is somewhat atypical for Hartmann in that it exhibits a commanding homogeneity of tone and clarity of outline, the symphony is representative of this composer's natural tendency towards a certain formal indiscipline and eclecticism. In this work one hears echoes from pretty much everything that mattered in early 20th century music: early Second Viennese School chromaticism (Verklärte Nacht, Lyric Suite), a Bartokian colour palette, Stravinskian rhythms, Hindemith's neo-classicist perkiness, Reger's dense counterpoint and formal historicism, late Mahler's bare bones orchestration and transfigured romanticism, Shostakovich's earthy humanism. However, that does not imply that the music is derivative. I find there is something very undefinably authentic about it which rewards repeated listening.
In the symphony, Conlon extrapolates the line set out in the Concerto. He is consistent in the slowness of his reading. The first movement is delivered as a genuine threnody. The fast middle movement is a little ponderous. In many recordings the finale - later added by Hartmann to an original two-movement conception - connects awkwardly to the preceding two movements. Here, the finale does work fairly well, but at a cost of some excitement. As in the Concerto, the whole thing tends to get a slightly saccharine taste by the end.
The Second Symphony has been labeled 'Adagio for large orchestra' by the composer. In fact, less than 20 bars in this 15 minute score bear this particular tempo indication. The symphony is a weird, rondo-like structure that revolves around a orientalising theme introduced by a baritone saxophone. There is a fair amount of Ravel in this music (La Valse, Ma Mère l'Oye), but I feel this sits uneasily with Hartmann's undeniably Teutonic idiom. Again, Conlon takes a broad approach in the outer sections so that the overall impression is not one of progressive quickening and intensification but of a very loud allegro outburst in a sea of relative calm. I guess it's a defensible approach but it left me rather involved anyhow.
All in all I cannot recommend this recording. Also the very fine sound and the sumptuous orchestral playing cannot save the day. Fortunately, there are alternatives. Isabelle Faust plays a magnificent Concerto Funèbre on an ECM recording featuring the Münchener Kammerorchester under her mentor Christoph Poppen (Hartmann: Concerto Funebre; Symphony No. 4; Kammerkonzert). The recording also includes an interesting Fourth Symphony. However, my first choice for the symphonies would be Rafael Kubelik's readings with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in a Wergo box of the collected symphonies (Karl Amadeus Hartmann: 8 Symphonies / Gesangs-Szene - Rafael Kubelik, et al.). In Kubelik's masterful hands, the Fourth sounds genuinely symphonic and bitingly expressionistic. A must.