Hartmann: Symphonies Nos 1-8

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COMPOSERS: Hartmann
LABELS: Challenge Classics
ALBUM TITLE: Hartmann: Symphonies Nos 1-8
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1-8
PERFORMER: Netherlands Radio Phil; Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/Markus Stenz, James Gaffigan. Michael Schønwandt, Christoph Poppen, Osmo Vänskä and Ingo Metzmacher
CATALOGUE NO: CC72583 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Karl Amadeus Hartmann (see below) was probably Germany’s finest symphonist since Brahms, and certainly its leading composer between Hindemith and Henze, sharing the contrapuntal proclivities of the one and the anti-fascist stance of the other. A postwar composer unafraid of tonality and emotion, he was also a figure of towering moral stature – he withdrew completely from the public sphere for 12 years as a stand against the Nazis – so his conspicuous neglect in the English-speaking world is odd. But in last year’s 50th anniversary of his death, Netherlands Radio featured his symphonies, resulting in this recorded cycle under six different conductors. The first six of Hartmann’s symphonies, though premiered between 1948 and 1953, rework pieces composed during, and bearing witness to, the evils and inhumanities of the Third Reich. All eight vary the same underlying theme – the contrast between adagio and scherzo, submerged tension and explosive release. Listening to them in sequence allows one to savour their increasingly impressive levels of structural mastery, polyphonic virtuosity and orchestral refinement, as well as tracing the hidden allusions to Jewish melodies, workers’ songs and banned ‘degenerate’ composers such as Stravinsky.

This set is full of fine things. The Brazilian alto Kismara Pessatti is properly harrowing in the cantata-like First Symphony, whose opening lines from Walt Whitman – ‘I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world’ – could stand as a motto for them all. Markus Stenz displays a subtle handling of the strings-only Fourth, with its first-movement violin solo that recalls Vaughan Williams’s Lark amid the ruins of war. Christoph Poppen shows a masterly balance of the monumental processional and the polyphonic percussionfest that make up the Sixth. Osmo Vänskä confidently synthesises the even-denser Dionysiac frenzy and Apollonian calm that comprise No. 7. If you’re equipped for surround sound, this is the set to go for; for anyone with a conventional stereo system or who prefers a more integrated vision from a single conductor, Ingo Metzmacher’s old EMI set now comes at budget price.

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Mark Pappenheim