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Hartmann: Symphonies 1-8 - Gaffigan / Metzmacher / Poppen / Schønwandt / Stenz / Vänskä

Hartmann: Symphonies 1-8 - Gaffigan / Metzmacher / Poppen / Schønwandt / Stenz / Vänskä

Challenge Classics  CC 72583 (3 discs)

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Symphonies 1 - 8

Kismara Pessati
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic
James Gaffigan, Ingo Metzmacher, Christoph Poppen, Michael Schønwandt, Markus Stenz, Osmo Vänskä


Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) is one of the most significant but least-known symphonic composers of the 20th century. This set of three hybrid SACDs, issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the German composer's death, features his eight symphonies played by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Chamber Philharmonic Orchestras under the batons of several major conductors, including Christoph Poppen, Osmo Vanska, James Gaffigan and Markus Stenz.

One of the most characteristic features of Hartmann's work is the way in which he forges contrasting stylistic elements and techniques from various periods of music history into a seamless unit. Moreover, one melody is found in all his symphonies, concealed to varying degrees. This melody is based on the Jewish song "Elijahu hanavi" about the prophet Elijah, whom the Jews anxiously await to bring them redemption. This yearning quality lies at the heart of the composer's music.

Two types of movement, adagio and scherzo, form the unmistakable axis of Hartmann's symphonic works, and the result is that the musical discourse continually takes place between expansion and energy, monumental stasis and a dynamic primal force toppling everything in its path. Hartmann's symphonic legacy most certainly deserves its rightful place in the canon, especially in English-speaking countries where it's been often overlooked.

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Review by John Miller - April 22, 2014

Listening to the eight symphonies of Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905–1963), successively and within a short period of time, is truly a uniquely memorable musical experience. Thanks, then, to the foresight of Challenge Classics in recording the full set and issuing them as superb stereo and multichannel SACDs, three in a double CD case with slip-sleeve. This set of hybrid SACDs, issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the German composer's death, features the eight symphonies played by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (NRPO) and Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic (NRCP) under the batons of several major conductors, including Ingo Metzmacher (8), Christoph Poppen (6), Osmo Vänskä (7), James Gaffigan (2,3), Marcus Schønwandt (5) and Markus Stenz (1,4).

Except for the Fourth and Eighth Symphonies, the recordings are of live performances as part of the 2012-2013 NTR Zagerdag Matinee Series at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The golden thread of Hartmann was woven through the symphony series, juxtaposed with other music old and new, just as Hartmann himself conducted. Symphonies Four (played by NRPO) and Five (played by NRCP) were recorded in the studios of Muziekcentrum van de Omroep Hilversum..

Musicologists aver that Hartmann was a very important factor in the C20th development and adaptation of the German symphony, and that he forms a link between Hindemith and Henze. His music is essentially tonal and displays a master at melding styles and structures from elsewhere in the history of music. In his symphonies, not only is their internal seamless nature obvious but also they display a collective relationship which derives from his using a Jewish song 'Elijahu hanavi', about Elijah the prophet, who was expected to come to bring Redemption. Whether Mahlerian romanticism, German expressionism or Stravinskyesque neo-classicism, exoticism or impressionism, Hartmann's compositions are certainly serious, some much like the lugubrious photographs which adorn his discs - even the startled-look photo on the front of the Challenge Classics set. My observation from listening to the sequence is that there is very little warmth in his music, even in his often very moving Adagios, nor does there seem to be any discernible image of Love. Instead, the music is laced with instructions of deep emotion and passion - some of which are quite unique.

There is a good reason for the relative lack of warmth in Hartmann's symphonic work. He was the only major composer who bravely but clandestinely fought Hitler and the Nazi Regime. He avoided fighting for them in the literal sense by half-poisoning himself in order to avoid being called for military service. He and his Francophone family had no time for the closed and brutal bureaucracy of the Third Reich.

Hartmann had connections to the Nazi resistance and he coded his music with messages of opposition. Historians have lauded him for his lonely period of non-compliance, but one must remember that he and his family had to be very careful to survive. In fact the Nazis knew little of his activities. There is an oft-quoted story about his writing a symphonic poem 'Miserae' and dedicating it "to the victims of Dachau 1933/1944". However, what is never told is that he only wrote this in pencil on the fly sheet of the conductor's score. The audience knew nothing of his sentiments. His early symphonies are all deeply scarred with his internal anguish, until the Sixth (1951-53) which marks the end of the phase at which he had used up most of his previous writings to re-make them as "war" symphonies.

Up to Hartmann's death at the age of 58, his music was gradually making some notice, despite powerful conductors with a Nazi past such as Karajan and Böhm who virtually eliminated his work from concert circulation. Avant-gardists such as Boulez and Stockhausen rejected Hartmann’s symphonic traditionalism and accelerated his obliteration. Even now, just after the 50th Anniversary, and about 4 sets of his symphonies on disc, Hartmann remains under the musical horizon for most listeners.

Hopefully this new set, with its magnificent high definition recording, may capture a new audience. Hartmann's skills at orchestration were often highly original and inventive, and with the NRPO or NRCP responding to his music so well, I often found myself transfixed, having turned up the volume quite a lot, by the natural concert sound on these discs, both from the wonderful acoustics of the Concertgebouw Amsterdam or the Hilversum Studios. The orchestras are certainly challenged, and play these highly complex contrapuntal scores as if in the manner born, and hardly a note is lost to the microphones. The percussion in particular sounds magnificent, from xylophone to 6 timpani and a very large bass drum and shimmering tamtam. Every instrument can be precisely located on the sound stage. Even if you are daunted by some of the massive dissonant crescendos (including a take-off of Mahler's famous "scream" chord in the first movement of his Tenth) the sound on this set will thrill you.

It would be invidious to single out any of the highly expert and carefully chosen conductors who produce such superb playing from the orchestras, although perhaps I was particularly captured by
Vänskä's brilliantly supple and energetic Seventh. Also, Stenz uses his great Mahler experience (Hartmann worshipped Mahler) in his alloted two symphonies.

Stenz conducts the heartfelt First (Versucht eines Requiems), which is the only symphony with vocals. Alto Kismara Pessati sings the potent extracts from Walt Whitman's ’Leaves of Grass’, the words selected sadly being deeply relevant to Hartmann’s own situation. "I sit and look at the sorrows of the world and upon all oppression and shame" she sings, her supple voice rich as an Earth Mother figure from Wagner, and she never misses a beat to echo and caress the anguish of the orchestral undertow.

My only criticisms of this fine set are related to the booklet. Maarten Brandt's essay on the symphonies and Hartmann's approach to them is rather generalised, and, given the public's lack of knowledge about the composer, at least an outline biography would have been helpful, as would more than just the odd sentence about the symphonies themselves. The notes are in English, German and Dutch. However, the crucial Whitman poems are presented only in the German translation used by Hartmann, so non-German speakers will have to hunt elsewhere to truly understand this deeply emotional work. The booklets of several other sets (RBCD) of the Hartmann symphonies have much more detail about each symphony, AND print translations of the Whitman texts in English and several other languages.

Congratulations again, however, to Challenge Classics for the insight and foresight to capture the 50th Anniversary of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's death, and thanks for letting us eavesdrop on concerts with virtually no audience noise to mar the glorious sound. This box set is at a very reasonable price and is just waiting to be picked up to help the discovery or re-discovery of the composer who defied the Third Reich.

Copyright © 2014 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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