Friday 8 May 2015

With Felix Woyrsch, CPO have found a composer who is well worth exploring particularly in performances that cannot be faulted from Thomas Dorsch and the Oldenburgisches Staatsorchester

Felix Woyrsch (1860-1944) was born in Troppau in the Austro-Hungarian (now called Opava and in the Czech Republic). He lived in Dresden and Hamburg while young, studying in the latter under the Hamburg choirmaster and music teacher, Ernst August Heinrich Chevallier (1848-1908).

Woyrsch held posts as a conductor and organist in a number of German cities before he was elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts in 1917. His music reveals the influence of Brahms, Schumann, Grieg and Mendelssohn though he states that his studies of the music of Bach, Palestrina, Lassus, and Heinrich Schütz as well as Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn taught him counterpoint and composition.

His own compositions include seven symphonies, five further works for orchestra, three operas, songs and a violin concerto.

CPO  have already recorded Woyrsch’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 60 coupled with his Hamlet Overture, Op. 56. Now from CPO, again performed by Thomas Dorsch  and the Oldenburgisches Staatsorchester  comes Woyrsch’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major and orchestral work, Drei Böcklin-Phantasien.

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Woyrsch’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 70 was first performed in 1928 in Altona in north Germany. In four movements the first marked Bewegt, doch nicht uübereilt opens with a melancholy theme, lit by brass before the strings, then woodwind take the melody slowly and gently forward. The orchestra soon pick up the pace more incisively and dynamically bringing moments of great forward momentum interjected with poetic passages. The music, at times, is quite stirring and very much in the mould of late19th, early 20th century music. It certainly carries the listener along as Woyrsch skilfully handles and develops his material before a coda that is more relaxed.

Strings open Mäßig schnell Decsive, soon broadening to move ahead decisively, though soon falling to a woodwind passage of some beauty, before gently leading ahead in the orchestra. The music rises up purposefully in swirls before suddenly moving to a quieter, faster moving section, full of orchestral detail. Eventually the music increases in dynamics for the coda.

The third movement, Langsam brings a fine, slow moving melody for strings. Brass intone, then woodwind as the music develops, gaining in tempo and dynamics before the brass bring back the opening tempo.  There are quietly swirling orchestral textures before the music rises in some fine dramatic moments, pointed up by brass and very finely orchestrated. There are moments of much interest with subtly shifting textures.

The finale, Lebhaft und feurig, doch nicht zu schnell rises up incisively with brass dominating as it leads forward in its confident theme. There are some delightfully playful little interludes but it is the forward drive and confidence that overall affects this movement. Part way through there is a quieter, slower section, full of fine instrumental detail before rising up again led by brass. There are many changes in mood and dynamics before we are led to a gloriously confident coda.

The Drei Böcklin-Phantasien, Op. 53 (Three Böcklin Fanatasies) were composed two years after his first symphony. It is surprising to be acquainted with the fact that around twenty composers have been inspired by the painting of Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901). I was aware of Reger’s Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, Op.128 and, of course Rachmaninov’s better known symphonic poem, Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 (1909).

Woyrsch was able to see a number of Böcklin’s paintings at an exhibition in Hamburg, drawing on three pictures to compose individual musical paintings. They were gathered together as Drei Böcklin-Phantasien, publishing them in 1910.

Die Toteninsel (The Isle of the Dead) rises slowly and quietly from the gloom, Woyrsch developing his material impressively. The music soon gains a lighter, brighter texture with a cor-anglais plaintively intoning a motif against quietly agitated strings. A greater flow and forward movement is gained though still with a sense of impassioned sorrow before rising to a peak and falling back. The succeeding gentler section is full of lovely instrumental detail with the cor-anglais and a clarinet appearing before the music disappears quietly into the gloom.

Der Eremit (The Hermit) has a lighter string opening, a fine melody drawn from a single interval before a solo violin brings a lovely theme above a hushed orchestra. As the music moves ahead in little surges an organ is heard then the theme is picked up by a cello, with some more fine individual instrumental details. Later there is a livelier section as the strings scurry forward, rising in more dramatic moments with a rather Wagnerian motif appearing. The organ underpins a lovely melodic moment that leads to the coda.

Im Spiel der Wellen (Playing in the Waves) opens buoyantly with the theme shared around the orchestra before swirling through some very fine passages, maintaining a forward flow even in the quieter sections. The music is often exquisitely and delicately orchestrated but later develops a rhythmic spring in its step with playful moments leading to the understated coda.

The question arises as to whether there any obvious influences in Woyrsch’s music. I would say that the only obvious influence is the shifting Wagnerian harmonies and textures.

Many forgotten composers lack the substance to remain of much interest but with Woyrsch we have a composer that is well worth exploring. The performances from Thomas Dorsch and the Oldenburgisches Staatsorchester cannot be faulted.

The recording is excellent and there are informative booklet notes as well as a detail from Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Isle of the Dead on the front cover of the booklet. 

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