Günter Raphael: Symphonies 2-5; Von der großen Weisheit

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If there is ever a revival of interest in the music of German 20th century composer Günter Raphael, it will start with the first-rate three-disc CPO set containing four of his five symphonies plus "Of the Great Wisdom," a gargantuan setting for soloists, chorus, and orchestra of the writings of Chinese philosopher Laozi. Mixing recent and classic performances, all in fine sound, it presents the best possible case for Raphael. On initial hearing, it is hard to identify the qualities that distinguish Raphael. He was a skillful and talented composer who knew what he wanted to do -- write tonal music in the Romantic tradition -- and he had the technical ability to do it, but he seemed more interested in evoking the shades of other, much earlier composers than in forging a unique identity. The first of his symphonies is not included, but his Second Symphony (1932) sounds distinctly like a pastiche of Wagner, with doom-laden themes, dark-scoring, and tragic tone that seems to come right out of Der Ring. His Third Symphony (1942) is marginally more modern sounding, a trend that accelerated in his Fourth (1947) and Fifth (1952), but even at its most advanced, Raphael's music remains clearly tonal, with passages of modality, and highly emotional, expressing more than tragedy. His magnum opus "Of the Great Wisdom" (1956) sounds leaner still, with much solo writing for the orchestra and many exposed passages for the soloists. While it aspires to a greater universality than the composer's very Germanic symphonies, it seems too vague and diffuse, and at 72 minutes, vastly too long. The performances themselves are unlikely to be bettered. In their 2007 recording of the Second, Christoph Altstaedt and the MDR Sinfonieorchester are powerful and professional, while Matthias Foremny and the same orchestra are crisp and stark in their 2003 recording of the Third. Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and the NDR Sinfonieorchester do even better, with a higher level of dedication in their 1960 recording of the Fifth, while surely no better performance of the Fourth is possible than this brilliant and incisive account by Sergiu Celibidache and the Berliner Philharmoniker. It would be hard to improve on Michael Gielen's heartfelt 1965 world-premiere performance of "Of the Great Wisdom" with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. But the question, "Is Raphael a great composer?" remains unanswered until his revival kicks into high gear and there are more performances to compare and more works to discuss.

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