The missing link in Austrian music

Egon Wellesz - An Austrian Master Unveiled | Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Acknowledged in Britain as a Byzantine music expert and distinguished teacher at Lincoln College, Oxford, Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) is only now beginning to receive the recognition he deserves as a composer of international stature. The Anglo-Austrian Music Society helped to confirm his global standing last Tuesday by presenting a concert of three important, contrasting chamber works. The superbly crafted pieces marked Wellesz's return to creativity in the 1940s after a five-year silence imposed by the shock of exile from his native Austria.

Emerging from creative purgatory, Wellesz began writing his fifth string quartet in 1943. An ardent but tough work, its potent mixture of nostalgia and rebirth was caught perfectly by the Emperor String Quartet. They launched the piece with an especially vehement unison introduction. The Mahlerian central Scherzo was shadowy and chilling in its sparse textures. In the slow Finale, headed "In memoriam", the sense of loss at the end of an era in this moving performance was as acute and affecting as in Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen (written two years after Wellesz's chamber work).

Inspired by the energy and originality of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry, Wellesz created one of his finest works in his setting of The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (1944). The fusion of Hopkins' music-inspired "sprung rhythms" with Wellesz's own highly charged Expressionist language results in one of the finest examples of word-setting in 20th-century music. The soloist Jeanette Ager demonstrated a true understanding of the multilayered text, and her dramatic rendition, full of Expressionist passion and complemented by her four sensitive accompanists, made the performance the highlight of the evening's music-making.

Wellesz's Octet (1948) uses the same instrumental forces as Schubert's contribution to the genre and was commissioned for performance as a companion piece to that work. The performers clearly enjoyed themselves, relishing the convivial and genial score's many solo passages.

Having finished the Octet, Wellesz began the third of his magnificent nine symphonies, all composed in Oxford between 1945 and 1971. It is timely that his Third Symphony (1951) will receive its long-overdue world premiÿre on 29 April in the Vienna Musikverein with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Marcello Viotti.

Egon Wellesz is fast emerging as the missing link in Austrian music between the late-19th-century symphonic tradition, as exemplified by Bruckner and Mahler, and the hothouse of the Second Viennese School (Wellesz was one of Schoenberg's earliest pupils). The composer's current reputation was enhanced and invigorated by the well-planned Wigmore Hall concert. Its success, together with the imminent Vienna premiÿre and the recent release of two CDs devoted to Wellesz's music, should lead to a re-appraisal of a significant and unjustly neglected composer - it is not before time.