More Music by Winterberg!

C5476 - cover

WINTERBERG: Symphony No. 1, “Sinfonia drammatica.” Piano Concerto No. 1.* Rhythmophonie / *Jonathan Powell, pno; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Johannes Kalitzke, cond / Capriccio C5476

Now that the restrictions on performances and recordings of Hans Winterberg’s music has finally been lifted, we are finally able to judge this remarkable composer more fully. New CDs seem to be coming out almost quarterly, and each one sheds new light on his excellent style and remarkable output.

This one focuses on a fairly early work, the Sinfonia drammatica, written when he was only 35; the first Piano Concerto, written in 1948; and the curious Rhythmophonie from 1966-67. Each one is excellent in its own way.

After listening to so much modern music that often sounds not only very dark but also, in its own way, thematically and rhythmically diffuse to the point of not having much shape, it’s almost startling to hear Winterberg again. Even at the stage of his first symphony, he was clearly trying to create his own identity within the modern school of composition, but at this point there are as many indications of late Romanticism as there are of modernism. For a “dramatic symphony,” the themes used in the opening of this one-movement work seem curiously light-hearted but not frivolous despite outbursts of strings, brass and percussion here and there. The liner notes refer to the “militarism” of the first and third sections, but either these were not quite as militaristic as the Shostakovich Seventh or the conductor underplays them, because I only heard occasional moments that kind of referred to it. A great deal is made in the notes of the fact that Winterberg was Czech, but to be honest, I’ve always heard his music as more in the continuum of modern German composers like Hindemith except with a bit more levity or lyricism at times. His music does not strike me as being “Czech” in the tradition of Bohuslav Martinů. At least, that’s how I hear it and I’m sticking to that.

In the later fast section, the music struck me as strangely glib. But was this Winterberg’s intent or the interpretation of conductor Johannes Kalitzke? I think the latter. Karl List’s performance of this same symphony with the Munich Philharmonic on Pieran 0054/55 is much more intense than Kalitzke’s reading.

In the Piano Concerto we do not have the luxury of another recording to compare—at least, I could not find one on the Internet—but here, Kalitzke is aided by the remarkable pianist Jonathan Powell, who recorded Sorabji’s massive cycle Sequentia Cyclica Super Dies Irae for Piano Classics, and Powell is very much an intense performer. The fast first movement is surprisingly short, only about three minutes long, and is in fact titled “Vorspiel” or “Prelude.” The real meat is in the moody, restless second movement, which runs almost seven minutes, in which Winterberg takes a strange but relatively modest theme and develops it in remarkable ways. There are rising and falling chromatic chords in this, too, which add to the mood as they are written in the minor. A soft figure played by the strings hints at Middle Eastern exoticism. The third movement, marked “Epilogue,” is a fairly long and involved piece in a rapid tempo but minor keys, a mixture of strong energy with a touch of menace, though not as dark as the second movement. The cadenza is surprisingly long for such a relatively short movement, giving the pianist an opportunity to have his say in the midst of the orchestral passages.

Winterberg never heard his Rhythmophonie; the premiere performance was canceled due to its being “too difficult to rehearse.” (The same complaint put off the world premiere of Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles.) It is indeed a tricky piece, with frequent contrary motion of two opposing themes in different syncopations. The notes aptly describe it as “kaleidoscopic in its ceaseless meter and mood changes,” using “distorted folk melodies” in addition to his usual polyrhythms and polytonalities. When played well, as it pretty much is here, however, it makes a very effective and interesting piece. Near the end of the first movement, it gets very complex indeed.

Yet the slow second movement is anything but rhythmic; rather, it is slow, moody, almost funereal in its mein. The third movement opens in a surprisingly moderate tempo with woodblocks, followed by winds playing a repeated chord and then strings and higher winds (flutes, piccolos) playing strange, atonal rhythmic figures. Although nearly as complex as the first movement, it is gentler in character, almost playful despite the use of minor-key harmonies. Yet in this movement I felt, as in the Symphony, that despite its technical perfection the performance lacked a bit of zip and drive.

Overall, however, a good, valuable addition to the Winterberg catalog. If you enjoy his music as much as I do, you’ve got to get this one.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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