Symphony of the Week II
Karoly (Karl) Goldmark (1830 - 1915)
Symphony no.1 ("Rustic Wedding") Op. 26 (1875)
This week, something wonderful.
Of all the non-canonical symphonies I have listened to over the last couple of years, this is the only one that I would say was self-evidently deserving of a place in the standard repertoire. Indeed, not so very long ago, it was part of the standard repertoire, as indicated by a recorded catalogue that includes versions by Beecham, Bernstein, Previn, Lopez-Cobos, Abravanel and others. Now, however, it has almost sunk from sight. I wonder how many classical music enthusiasts under the age of fifty will even have heard of it. In the whole of my adult listening life, I don't ever recall stumbling across a broadcast and have never had the opportunity to encounter it live. The Bernstein recording was in my father's vinyl collection and I listened to it a couple of times as a teenager. Encountering it again some four decades later I was surprised by how much detail I recalled and delighted to find the whole every bit as enjoyable as I remembered.
The work is in five movements, starting out with a set of variations on a theme very strongly reminiscent of Adeste Fideles announced in sprightly march tempo by unison unaccompanied 'cellos and basses. The thirteen variations that ensue are clearly inspired by Brahms' St. Anthony Variations (the first freestanding set of orchestral variations ever composed, on a theme with similar contours to Goldmark's ) but are every bit as fine, arguably finer. Goldmark is a much less inhibited orchestrator than Brahms and far more willing to indulge individual instrumental colours. Note the clashing, suitably "rustic" timbres of horn and clarinet in the first variation, the bold use of trombones in the third, the generously lyrical wide-spaced string writing of the fourth... I could go on until the humorous final variation, which opens with trumpet fanfares and percussion before revealing itself as a protracted fade-out. I can't resist also drawing attention to Goldmark's gently amusing use of his theme's final two bars of repeated note rhythm to snatch a moment of calm between inventions.
This lengthy, unorthodox opening movement could, I suppose, stand on its own, but is perfectly balanced by what follows. The Second Movement "Bridesong" is a Schumannesque intermezzo with unexpectedly bold fanfare-like interruptions and tender string interludes. The central Scherzo is scored with exemplary transparency and features a delightful drone-based imitation bag-pipe trio.
And then comes one of the most beautiful symphonic slow movements of its era. The haunting, languorous theme passed by clarinet to violins over hypnotic string syncopations is superbly sustained and builds through a finely judged middle section of yearning chromatic sequences. At the climax a spectacular descending run from top to bottom of the string section is a further demonstration of Goldmark's sureness of touch - both showy and controlled.
All is topped off with a finale of robust high spirits; the work's only sonata form movement, though its foregrounded features are not so much thematic development as unforced fugal dexterity and festive dance. Perhaps the theme of the previous movement is recalled too early in the proceedings, but who wouldn't want to hear it again? Who, having heard it once, wouldn't want to hear the whole work again?
So why haven't we been hearing it? Why isn't it performed at least as much as, say, Cesar Franck's altogether more strenuous and less attractive D minor Symphony? Why is it never turned to as a fresh alternative to overplayed warhorses such as Dvorak's New World Symphony, Grieg's Piano Concerto or the Ravel/Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition? Isn't it just the sort of thing that jaded orchestral players might enjoy playing.
Yes, one does sometimes read nonsense about the "naivety" of the piece's programmatic outline, or about how the replacement of an opening sonata-form movement with variations makes it a suite, rather than a proper symphony, and therefore somehow trivial. To which I would reply that the programme is no more "naive" in its detail than that of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, whilst the ample dimensions of the work (around 45 minutes) make it fully deserving of the designation its composer bestowed upon it. (In fact, it was rigid adherence to inherited notions of abstraction and form that condemned most mid-Nineteenth Century symphonies to oppressive anonymity.) Have we classical music enthusiasts really become so pompous that we can no longer countenance something that exists for no other reason than to give direct and uncomplicated pleasure, even if that pleasure is served up with the exceptional craft and technique commanded by Goldmark? After all, it was good enough for Goldmark's demanding (and envious) friend, Brahms. "Clear cut and faultless" was his verdict, and I agree with him.
Now, I should admit that quite a lot of Goldmark's large and varied output is floating around on Youtube, and none of it leaps out at me with the same immediacy that this does - though all of it bears witness to a warm and refined creativity personality. Even the A minor Violin Concerto, once almost as widely played as those by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Bruch, seems just a shade restrained in its expression, though I am a little surprised that more violinists don't want to play it, if only for what appears an expertly conceived solo part. Likewise, the Second (some might pedantically insist, Goldmark's only true) Symphony in Eb, despite a lovely pastoral opening and many incidental beauties, tends rather to hang fire. I have only just started to explore the chamber music, which so far seems rather more promising. Nor should it be overlooked that Goldmark's operas, Merlin, The Winter's Tale, and especially, The Queen of Sheba were much admired and revived in both Europe and America. Perhaps an enterprising festival, such as Wexford, could be persuaded to try one of them out.
Yet, even if there does prove to be nothing in this prolific Magyar's output to match, please don't decline this wedding invitation. Whatever he may or may not have accomplished elsewhere, here at least he truly sparked joy.
No video this time, but here is a link to a Youtube performance with score.
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