THIS WEEK, Rafael Kubelik will conduct the New York Philharmonic in the U.S. premiere of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's "Gesangsszene," with the baritone Roland Hermann in the solo role. If any other Hartmann work were to be programmed anywhere in our country, it would probably be an American premiere, too, but all eight of Hartmann's symphonies and the "Gesangsszene" are available in five-disc set on the German label Wergo. Who is this Hartmann?
Hartmann was a Bavarian who lived all his life (1905-1963) in Munich, the city of his birth. He was highly regarded during his lifetime, and he was a moral hero. He was appalled by the Nazis, but he did not leave Germany, as many of his colleagues were compelled to do; instead, he decided to sit out the "Thousand-Year Reich," and he made some heroically defiant gestures.
One of these, symbolizing Hartmann's "inner emigration," was his decision to prohibit the performance of his music in Germany until the end of the Nazi regime. His decision came at a time when his creative career was just getting started and his music was being performed elsewhere in Europe.
Still more defiant was his composition of the "Concerto funebre" for violin and string orchestra in 1939. That work is a lament for the passing of the Czechoslovak Republic as a result of the infamous four-power agreement framed in Munich the previous year, and in it he quotes the Hussite battle-hymn "Ye Who Are Warrior of God," a chorale tune long sacred to the Czech people and used earlier in epic works by Smetana and Dvorak (as well as more recently by Karel Husa).
While that gesture was provoked by moral indignation, it is possible that Hartmann felt a special attachment to the Czechs because his first major symphonic work, "Miserae," was introduced in Prague in 1935. Since the end of World War II, the Czech-born Kubelik has been one of Hartmann's most conspicuous champions; he conducted the world premiere of Hartmann's Eighth Symphony less than a year before the composer's death, and he conducts six of the nine works in the Wergo set (60086).
All nine works are performed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra--Symphony No. 1 under Fritz Rieger, No. 3 under Ferdinand Leitner, No. 7 under Zdenek Macal (another Czech), all the rest under Kubelik, with Dietrick Fischer-Dieskau in the "Gesangsszene."
Like the "Concerto funebre," the "Gesangsszene," Hartmann's last major work, is elegiac (its text is a German translation of passages from Jean Giraudoux's "Sodom and Gomorrha"), and this thread runs through much of Hartmann's output, characterized by some commentators as a pervasive "apocalyptic vision." The First Symphony, which also has a part for vocal soloist (the contralto Doris Soffel in this recording), is called "Essay for a Requiem," and its text is from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." (Hartmann wrote the original version of this work in 1935, a decade before his compatriot Paul Hindemith used some of the same lines, in English, in his Requiem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.")
Some of the seven works between the first and the last in this box, however, make their impact in terms of sheer vitality; there are brilliant fugal sections in several of them, and more than a few surprises. The Second Symphony suggests a fascination with Oriental effects; the Fifth contains a clearly recognizable but unexplained quotation from Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"; the Sixth, inspired by Zola's novel "L'Oeuvre," has much in common with Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which was written shortly before the Symphony's original version. No. 4, which was recorded once or twice in the past, is a splendid piece for strings alone; Nos. 7 and 8 are workouts for huge orchestras.
Throughout all these works, in their various moods and textures, the one most prominent unifying factor is the urgency that was characteristic of Hartmann in his exultancy as well as his meditation. This is strong, provocative music, much of it "disturbing" in the most stimulating sense, all of it in a tonal language whose directness enhances its appeal. (Lessons from Anton Webern in the early 1940s helped Hartmann sharpen his orchestration, but did not affect his personal style.)
The performances in the new set are all eloquently committed, the recordings splendid, the pressings exemplary. Ulrich Dibelius' long essay in the accompanying booklet is printed only in German, but his detailed introductions to the nine works are in English as well, with both the original texts and English translations for the two vocal works. A five-record set of unfamiliar music may represent exploration on a large scale, but I think this is a plunge worth taking.