Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) is remembered as a conductor. His complete traversal of the Beethoven symphonies was the first ever recorded and are still regarded as examples of sane, sensible, and artistically satisfying efforts. As a composer, however, he is remembered only, if at all, as the arranger of an orchestral version of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Op. 106, 'Hammerklavier', in my opinion a largely ineffective transcription. He was prolific composer from his earliest years. In 1884 while still a student of Liszt his opera 'Sakuntala' was mounted and several others followed. None of them is ever staged these days as far as I know. He wrote at least seven symphonies, two overtures and three Lisztian symphonic poems, as well as a large body of chamber music including five string quartets. The cpo label has favored us with excellent recordings of four of the symphonies. The present CD is the first issue containing chamber music and one hopes it will not be the last.
The Sextet, Op. 33, in E Minor (1906) is for piano, two violins, viola, cello and contrabass. It is in the usual four movements. The first movements is impetuous, sweeping one along in its exuberant emotionality. The second movement, a Scherzo in 2/4 marked allegretto, begins with chordal pizzicati from the strings alternating with a perky tune played by the piano. This is followed by a first trio whose almost saccharine lyrical theme is primarily given out by the first violin in its upper register. The second trio leads into a triumphant return of the initial section. The Adagio is marked 'in the character of an improvisation'. It is dominated by an introverted, musing piano solo that is then lightly accompanied by the strings. The Finale is, oddly, a funeral march. Actually formally it is a rondo that reintroduces material from the three preceding movements, culminating in the appassionato material from the first movement. One cannot know if there is some sort of Lisztian program as subtext for the work, but it seems likely. The Sextet is marked by Weingartner's fecund melodic talent and a strong, if somewhat idiosyncratic, formal sense.
The Octet (1925) is for the same forces as Schubert's great Octet in F, D 803*, but of course written in the chromatic language of Liszt, Wagner and the German late Romantics; it is in all but name a chamber symphony. There is little in it that would have surprised those familiar with the 1906 Sextet. The first movement, Allegro, has the tortured chromaticism of Tristan and I fancy I hear at one point a direct quotation of the Love Death theme. It is possible that this somehow commemorates the death in 1921 of his third wife, the singer Lucille Marcel. The second movement, Andante, is a set of variations on a French song whose lyric include this: 'This is the death that holds my heart in chains / it is the grief for my friend / I die, alas, I die / since you must now go.' The variations become more intensely dramatic as the movement progresses. The third movement, a Minuet, comes as an island of partial relief that is not quite complete because of the aching opening tune played by the horn. The finale, Allegro moderato, opens with uprushing major-key scales, implying a lighter mood but when the main theme arrives, with its trudging accompaniment, one realizes there is bitterness and cynicism here with, perhaps not too strangely, touches of Kurt Weill's then-newly-popular style. Occasional islands of lyricism are repeatedly overwhelmed by the inexorability of the marching feet one thinks may have been inspired by the rise of the National Socialist 'patriots' just then beginning to march in the streets with their calls for Greater Germany's unity and racial purity. One is not surprised to recall that this music was written during the increasing desperation of the Weimar Republic that, in spite of Weingartner's acclaim as a conductor, brought few opportunities for his own music.
The performances by members of Ensemble Acht and pianist Oliver Triendl are all that one could ask for. The dense textures of both pieces, particularly the Octet, are clearly recorded by cpo's engineers.
* It's been called to my attention for two sharp-eyed readers that I made a mistake in this statement. Of course, the Schubert uses a double bass rather than a piano as in the Weingartner. Big difference. Sorry about that.