Exploring Wellesz, Part 2: The Concertos

WELLESZ: Piano Concerto, Op. 49.* Violin Concerto, Op. 84 + / *Margarete Babinsky, pno; David Frühwirth, vln; Rundfunk Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin; Roger Epple, cond / Capriccio 5027

Moving along in my survey of Wellesz’ music, we now come to his concerti for piano and violin. The first of these, written in 1933, reverts to tonality and in fact seems to draw on Stravinsky for inspiration. Indeed, the first movement sounds for all the world like a lost or unknown work by the Russian master with its stiff ostinato rhythms and angular melodic and harmonic progression. And yet in certain passages, for instance at 3:30 in the first movement, there are moments that remind one of “progressive” film music of the late 1940s-early ‘50s. At times the solo part is highly virtuosic, while at other times it sounds merely playful.

Yet the second movement, somber and majestic, has a strong Romantic-styled melody and for the most part retains traditional harmony. Played or listened to out of context, you’d have a difficult time naming either the composer or the period other than perhaps the early 20th century, at the dawn of more advanced music (there are just enough quirky moments in it to remove it from the Strauss school of composition). Interestingly, the third movement is also slow, a fairly heavy and dramatic-sounding “Adagio,” and once again Wellesz reverts to his Stravinsky-isms. But surprisingly, the “Adagio” doesn’t last very long and before we know it we’re in the midst of some really complex, fast-paced passages, expertly tied together and yes, even featuring a couple of Strauss-like melodic snippets beginning at the 2:18 mark which return later in a more definite fashion. A very strange conclusion to a strange work!

In the Violin Concerto, finished in 1961, Wellesz is all business. The music opens with dark, somber themes using bitonality, and the soloist’s entrance, pitched in its lower register, sounds dark and ominous, more like a viola than a violin. Yet the instrument moves into its high range relatively quickly, playing very difficult figures that become ever more virtuosic as the piece develops. Wellesz seems to have conceived this piece as a call-and-response with the solo violin making the calls and the full orchestra responding with knotty motifs and themes of its own. One wonders at the darkness of this music; it’s clearly a forbidding piece despite its excellent structure and strong emotional projection.

Nonetheless, this CD fills in two important works in Wellesz’ legacy, giving us a fuller picture of this superb composer at work. The performances are also first-rate.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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