Thursday 15 November 2012

Waghalter at the Cadogan Hall

Gregor Hartmann, Giacomo Puccini and
Ignatz Waghalter in Berlin, 1913
To say that composer Ignatz Waghalter was little known would be an understatement. There wasn't even an entry on him in Grove until the composer's grandson had contacted Stanley Sadie and demonstrated his grandfather's significance in Germany in the year's before 1933. Thanks to Polish violinist Irmina Trynkos and conductor Alexander Walker, Waghalter's two concertante works for violin and orchestra have been recorded and released on Naxos. On Wednesday 14 November, Irmina Trynkos played both Waghalter's Violin Concerto and his Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra, with Alexander Walker conducting the English Chamber Orchestra at London's Cadogan Hall.

Waghalter was born in 1881 to a musically talented but not prosperous Polish Jewish family. He trained with Schwarenka amongst others, was mentored by Joseph Joachim, studied with Friedrich Gernsheim (who had trained in Leipzig), and made a career for himself in Berlin, directing the Deutsche Oper, writing four operas, becoming friendly with Puccini, Franz Schreker, Eugen d'Albert, Paul Hindemith and Albert Einstein. Though not from an observant family, Waghalter never converted to Christianity the way that many musical Jews did at the time, and this may have hurt his career somewhat. Also, to say that his musical style is rather conservative is something of an understatement.

It is difficult nowadays for us to quite understand the polarity of that the music of the new German school of Wagner, Liszt and their followers generated when it came to the old German school of Mendelssohn,  Schumann and Brahms. To study at the Leipzig Conservatoire (founded by Mendelssohn) was to make a clear statement of your sympathies. For various reasons, cultural and temperamental, many Jewish musicians  aligned themselves with the old German school. Waghalter was no different. His highly melodic music sounds as if might have been written by a pupil of Brahms, the Violin Concerto breathes the same air as the concertos of Bruch and Dvorak.

Waghalter wrote the concerto for his brother, Wladislaw, who premiered it in 1911.  It must have sounded a trifle old fashioned even then, but not everyone wants to live on the cutting edge and the concerto was popular. Wladislaw was a virtuosic player, he would play the Brahms and the Beethoven concertos in the same evening. Waghalter's concerto requires just such a player, the violin part contains thickets of notes to challenge the player. The violin's relationship with the orchestra is less combative than, say, Brahms; here the model of Bruch strikes one, with the violin indulging in long dialogues with the orchestra.

The solo violin makes a short, dramatic interjection into the opening orchestral tutti, before staying silent until the main violin statement. A strange, dramatic gesture which, perhaps, required a more dramatically heroic player than Irmina Trynkos to bring off. Alexander Walker kept the pulse and impetus of the first movement flowing, it is an attractively very dynamic piece. But I felt that Walker did not always support Trynkos as well as he could, there were moments when the orchestra was simply too loud.

Trynkos is a very sympathetic, poetic player but in the first movement she rather lost herself at times in the cascades of notes the concerto requires from the player. I think a violinist on a more heroic scale to weave the thickets of notes into shape. As it was, Trynkos never really got beyond details, to project the overall shape of the movement.

She was on far stronger territory in the more rhapsodic middle movement. This led straight on from the opening movement with a bridge of just a single, wonderful horn note. This movement was based on a lovely long breathed melody with Trynkos sang finely. Again, Waghalter used cascades of notes as the violin dialogued with the orchestra. A long substantial movement, it was haunting and a little uneasy in feeling, though the work lacked any real darkness.

The lively final movement, with a general feeling of triple time, was also quite sunny complete with a tambourine at times, though any echoes of Spain fleeting. Though sunny, it was also complex in mood, with the violinist again required to perform virtuosic feats as the rondo progressed.

The second Waghalter work in the programme was his Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra, an earlier work than the Violin Concerto,  it was premiered in 1906. As its name suggests, it was a lyrical, rhapsodic work which showcased Waghalter's melodic talent, with the violin given some freely rhapsodic passages which Trynkos played with a lovely singing tone (though the double stopping did sometimes cause tuning problems). The feeling was less about display than about display, and I suspect that this work would be the easier one for violinists to take up.

The concert opened with a stylish and fleet account of Mozart's overture to Cosi van Tutte, though you felt that Walker and the orchestra did take a little time to settle down. But once they did, the perky rhythms, transparent textures and lovely wind playing were most enjoyable.

Punctuating the concert were four of Dvorak's Legends, numbers 3, 4, 7 and 9. Dvorak wrote these just after his Sixth Symphony. They are less well known than the Slavonic Dances but like them the orchestral pieces are based on music for piano duet. The Legends also use folk like idioms, though are less dance-based and rely on atmosphere to evoke mood. Each seemed be its own mini-drama, though Dvorak did not give any of them explicit programmes. Number 3 was charming and very folk-like, whereas 4 developed the folk idioms into something grander which had hints of Russian music in it; 7 was again all charm and lilt, but in 9 Dvorak introduces a drone and seems to be seriously channelling Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. The orchestra's performances were of great charm, and you wondered why the music is not better known.

Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony brought the concert to a sunny conclusion. Though the orchestra played sympathetically in the Waghalter pieces, the Mendelssohn very much at a feeling of joy to it, that the players were coming home. A light and fleet account of the opening movement, demonstrated the orchestra skill with Mendelssohn's transparent orchestral textures, bringing a vein of melancholy into the second movement whilst maintaining a delightful clarity. This second movement was clearly no funeral procession, but something far more subtle. Walker and his players brought out the echoes of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Nights Dream in the third movement, before launching into a tarantella which impressed with its precision and control.

Ignatz Waghalter's music clearly deserves further performance and great credit must be due to Irmina Trynkos and Alexander Walker for bravely pioneering these contemporary performances. Trynkos performance of the Violin Concerto was heroic in the way that she attacked its technical demands, though I do not think that her account represents the definitive version.

I do hope that the combination of this concert and the CD on Naxos raises more general interest in the undeservedly neglected composer. (I will be doing a further blog post on the recent re-discovery of Waghalter's music).

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