Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Funèbre (ECM New Series 1720)


Karl Amadeus Hartmann

Isabelle Faust violin
Paul Meyer clarinet
Petersen String Quartet
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen conductor
Recorded July and September 1999, Angelika-Kauffmann-Saal, Schwarzenburg
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Funèbre stands out in the New Series both for its due attention to German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) and for welcoming conductor Christoph Poppen and the Munich Chamber Orchestra into the ECM fold. The latter have since gone on to record a number of pivotal records for the label, including the all-Scelsi program Natura Renovatur and the Bach/Webern crossover project Ricercar. Here they are joined by violinist Isabelle Faust, the Petersen String Quartet, and clarinetist Paul Meyer for a shuffling of dark, darker, and darkest. The two main courses—Concerto funebre and the Symphony No. 4—are among Hartmann’s best known and preface the world premiere recording of his Chamber Concerto for clarinet, string quartet, and orchestra.

Hartmann’s fiery personality and strikingly inter-idiomatic style made him an easy target under the Third Reich, during which time he withdrew his music from the public sphere altogether in solidarity with other persecuted composers who chose “internal exile” over excommunication (or worse). It was nevertheless heard abroad, where it took on a life of its own. After the war, his revitalization of the European soundscape through the famed Music Viva concert series further deflected attention away from his own work at home. This, coupled with his penchant for self-criticism, left the world with a minimal published output, a problem rectified only after his passing when all-but-forgotten scores were restored, printed, and performed.

Concerto funebre for solo violin and string orchestra is Hartmann’s only violin concerto. It is meant to navigate the iniquities he saw brewing in 1939, when he began writing it. Hartmann dedicates it to his son, only four at the time. In this spirit, he wrote in retrospect, “The chorales at the beginning and end are intended to offer a sign of hope against the desperate situation of thinking people.” The piece in four tableaux initially bore a different title: Musik der Trauer (Music of mourning)—which naturally recalls Hindemith’s Trauermusik for viola and string orchestra—before changing it upon revising the piece in 1959. It forges a unique alloy of violinist and orchestra, so that the former’s attitude is more traveler than soloist, strings the life-giving land from which it comes together. The end effect is such that high notes and low notes are not markers of altitude, but rather inversions of one another on a horizontal axis of expression. The violin is a full-throated being, a pendulum housed in wrought iron. Neither do typical rules of concerto form apply. The Allegro does not provide catharsis but rather embodies a deepening of grief. Only in the Adagio do we detect a morsel of affirmation. Nevertheless, the Allegro does provide a physical sensation of uplift, a cyclone of leaves in which Faust is the only one determined among them. It is also a stepping-stone for the achingly beautiful corridor of the final Chorale, which strengthens the elasticity of the body’s emotional skin and draws on its palimpsest a broken circle.

The Symphony No. 4 (1947/48) for string orchestra takes a 1938 concerto for strings and soprano as its palette and builds from it a new diorama. Two slower movements sandwich a compact inner core: a sonic flag bearing ugly repression and shaded resistance. The colors are wan at first, rhythmically tethered to a far-off caravan whose footprints have long since been dusted over. Lachrymose and weighted by unspoken fear, the figures that left them are but a flicker on the horizon. Hints of Mahler and Webern dot an otherwise bold, original score. That Hartmann deploys these references so organically is one thing. That he does so with such arresting melodic development is quite another. The free-floating sensations of the symphony’s bookends are especially instructive in this regard, while its heliocentric Allegro reaches downright thrilling peaks of agitation. The broad sweep of its closing Adagio is overwhelmingly dense, leaving us with a heavy bowl of fruit indeed to share with those who will listen.

Although the unusual Chamber Concerto was completed in 1935, it was first performed only posthumously, in 1969. In light of its gypsy flavors, that it bears dedication to Zoltán Kodály should come as no surprise. Two longer outer movements create yet another frame, this one housing six brief dance variations. Across these Hartmann splashes the piece’s most vivid colors. Gorgeous, rustic, and magnetic, the tunes practically leap of their own volition, turning midnight into dawn at Meyer’s fluid inflections. All of this builds to a haunting stretch of ocean, crisp and bright as the moon.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, you’ll not want to miss out on ECM’s worthy account of Sándor Veress, and vice versa. Both composers draw out likeminded freshness from the earthly cares of which they were both injured subjects.

From the ash comes the phoenix.

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