The Orchestral Music of Winterberg

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WINTERBERG: Symphonies Nos. 12,5 & 21,3. Ballade um Pandora, Ballet for Orchestra.1,4 Symphonic Epilogue.1,6 Symphonic Travel Ballad.2.7 Stationen 1974-75 2,8 / 1Munich Philharmonic Orch.; 2Bamberg Symphony Orch.; 3Jan Koetsier, 4Rudolf Alberth, 5Karl List, 6Fritz Rieger, 7Joseph Strobl, 8Rainer Miedel, cond / Pieran 0054-55 (live: 1952-1975)

In my reviews of Hans Winterberg’s chamber music recorded for Toccata Classics, I noted that the booklets mentioned that his music was performed almost continuously during his lifetime in Germany after World War II, but that since his death almost nothing is played. This is because Winterberg’s adopted son Christoph sold all of his father’s music to the Sudeten-German Music Institute, which has placed a ban on all public performances until January 1, 2031. Leave it to Pieran Records, a small boutique label that is now apparently being distributed by BR Klassik, to come up with some of those actual broadcasts so we can at least hear what this orchestral music sounded like.

Naturally, since these are historic broadcasts and most are in mono sound, we are at the mercy of the sonic artifacts at hand. As usual, however, Pieran did an excellent job in getting the best possible sound out of its archive material, thus what we have is listenable at worst and sonically excellent at best. Indeed, I have to admit being somewhat shocked by how good the December 1952 broadcast of the Second Symphony, which opens this set, was: the orchestral textures are crystal-clear, and the playing of the Munich Philharmonic is above reproach considering the era of this performance.

As for the music, it is as I described in my reviews of his chamber works: modern-sounding but not always atonal, his ability to fuse lyrical lines with modern harmonies that not only move the top line forward but the development sections as well, and the impact of his music which is emotional but never sentimental. Having just finished reviewing the orchestral music of Ernst Krenek, who I felt to be uneven and overrated, listening to Winterberg was like a breath of fresh air. Everything in his music makes sense, it goes somewhere, his sense of structure is solid and most of the time his music sounded quite inspired and not just “written to formula.”

Add it all up and you’ll discover a composer who lay halfway between Mahler and Hindemith: tighter forms than the latter with some of the harmonic daring of the latter. Considering his infatuation with modern German and French music, this is possibly where Charles Tomlinson Griffes might have ended up had he lived longer. There is a touch of Stravinsky’s influence but not too much, and whereas Stravinsky’s music, even at its most powerful, always seems to fuse the intellectual with the emotional, Winterberg’s music, though clearly mapped out thoughtfully, always sounds emotional and powerful. It’s an enticing combination which makes him, for me, one of my most treasured discoveries in the last few years along with the music of Mieczysław Weinberg, Robert Groslot, and a few others. I can only hope that modern-day conductors eventually take up Winterberg once the knots and tangles of his family’s control of his music are ironed out.

My comparing this music to Mahler is not whimsy. Listen to the second movement of the Symphony No. 2 and you’ll hear the same kind of spacious, almost 3D sound that Mahler achieved in his symphonies. This is yet another reason why it’s good to have these orchestral works: they tell us what kind of orchestral colors Winterberg liked to use and how he used them.

Much of the music is amorphous, thus it’s difficult to describe without having an actual score to examine, but most of it moves at a moderate pace even in the fast movements, allowing the listener to follow his train of musical thought perfectly. And there are so many moments where one hears a tonal, almost lovely melody (as in this same second movement of the Second Symphony) that quickly and unexpectedly transforms itself via a rapid shift of the underlying chord position, yet for the most part he is more conservative than, say, Szymanowski. The third movement of this symphony is a bit bitonal but, again, scarcely out of the reach of an open-minded listener. In addition, all of his music has a nice, easy flow about it. Nothing in it sounds jarring as if often the case with Stravinsky or Schoenberg, yet the music is ever-complex beneath its veneer of simplicity.

Interestingly, this symphony was written in 1943, when Winterberg was still in a state of personal and emotional disorder due to the War and the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. As described in the liner notes, “Winterberg found himself in a community of exiled Czech-Germans,” yet, confusingly, “Czech-Germans were also called Sudeten-Germans, though they did not necessarily come from the province of Sudetenland,” and “Many of these Sudeten-Germans, including German-speaking Jews from Prague, obviously did not welcome Hitler.” Yet following the “liberation” of Czechoslovakia, many of them were forcibly deported to Germany. Many of them fled to the U.S.A., Israel (Palestine back then) or Great Britain rather than live there, but Winterberg was one of the exceptions. Fortunately, he somehow escaped persecution and being sent to one of the concentration camps.

The “ballet music for orchestra” Ballade um Pandora is actually more complex and less tonal than the symphony. The notes explain the scenario: Zeus, Prometheus, the First Human, Hephaistos, Hope Aphrodite, Pandora, Epimetheus and a child sit alongside each other along with Nymphs, good and bad people, and messengers of the gods: Sickness, Hate, Unrtuth, Egoism, Envy, Arrogance, Greed, Vanity, Bitterness and Heartlessness (hmm…this sounds like the modern-day Democratic Party and the media!). Prometheus creates the first man out of lime and water, then asks Athena to breathe life into it via a butterfly. Zeus, angry at them for this act of unauthorized creation and leaves his throne. The First Human shows Prometheus and Athena the error of this act as he and the other humans show anger and destruction towards each other. There’s a lot more to it, but you get the general idea. Winterberg adds a piano to the orchestra in this one, and the music constantly shifts the tonally so that, after a minute or so, the casual listener is lost. Much of the music is also very strong rhythmically, perhaps in emulation of Stravinsky; gone is the lyrical effusion of the Second Symphony. And once again, the sound quality is astounding for its age. You’d never guess, just from listening, that this was taken from a 1959 broadcast.

With the Sinfonia Dramatica of 1934, we step backwards to Winterberg’s earlier style, except that here the music is a bit more episodic—on purpose, of course. Elongated themes seemingly arise out of nowhere and, after being played out, melt into other themes. Rhythms and tempi also change with some frequency, yet somehow Winterberg managed to knit it all together. Even early on, then, he wrote excellent music. The Symphonic Epilog of 1951 features swirling wind figures around a body of strings and brass. The music progresses stepwise up and down, again with lyrical interludes, some of them—like the one at the 9:20 mark—quite touching and moving.

The Symphonic Travel Ballad is possibly autobiographical, but no matter; it’s the music, not the memories, that counts, and here Winterberg is predominantly gentle in manner and gesture. By contrast with the preceding two pieces, this is almost light music, using witty motifs and orchestration, at least until the four-minute mark, when the tempo suddenly increases and the brass give out with an explosion. But this small passing storm doesn’t last long. At 5:45the tempo again increases, but this time the music is relatively upbeat in mood. The 7:30 mark brings in a somewhat jazzy theme that comes and goes. The feeling of whimsy, however, lasts until the very end.

We close out our tour of Winterberg’s orchestral music with the three Stations 1974/75. These have individual titles: “Ante vindobonam,” “Aria infinita” and “Toccata fantastica.” Once again, there’s a bit of a jazz feel into the opening of the first piece. We also hear whimsical, slurring trombones, soft string tremolos and small trumpet fanfares here and there as the piece progresses. By contrast, the “Aria infinita” is light and airy, the music floating through one’s mind like gently zephyrs in the air. The “Toccata fantastica” is also light in character but livelier rhythmically, with the meter and tempo shifting constantly as it goes along. The music remains somewhat upbeat even as it becomes louder and again strong in rhythm, with little spot solos by brass and wind instruments.

The booklet explains the behind-the-scenes cause of the ban on Winterberg’s music, and that was his one real enemy, Heinrich Simbriger (1903-1976), one of the leading forces in the founding of the Sudeten-German Institute. Simbriger’s correspondence cast doubts on Winterberg’s origin, thus it’s quite likely that, before his death, Simbriger tried to encourage the post-mortem acquisition of Winterberg’s works for the sole purpose of suppressing their performance. It’s a shame, really. I likely won’t live to hear or experience any new performances of it, thus I, like many music aficionados, want to personally thank Pieran Records for this rare opportunity to hear it at last.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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