Hyperion Records

Symphony No 2 in E flat major, Op 55
The Overture to a Fairytale Opera, Op 53, and the short piano pieces Marionettes, Op 54, are the only works written between the two symphonies. Information on the creation of this work is scarce and can only be gleaned from some of the letters mentioned earlier. In all likelihood the first ideas were nurtured during the period when the composer was in Berlin in 1936/7, watching the horrors of the Fascists as they begin their ascendency in a country he had once thought of as his second home. Like a repeat of his experiences at the start of both the First World War and the Russian Revolution, the composer fled back to Vienna in the hope of escaping the nightmare which was beginning to descend on Europe. The Second Symphony is in many ways very different to the First, and its orchestral colouring is far darker than its sunnier precursor. The work is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony with its sense of brooding melancholy and lilting melody. Letters from the composer around 1937 clearly show that conductors in Europe were keen to perform the work: Mengelberg, Schuricht and Steiner all promised the composer performances. The work was broadcast on the Berlin State Radio in April 1938 conducted by the composer. These early performances went extremely well and Bortkiewicz wrote to Van Dalen:

I was glad you heard my second symphony [… ] I have heard many good things from many sides about my symphony, which seems to have pleased everyone, although it is much more difficult to conduct and to understand on a first hearing as my first symphony. (Letter dated 6 March 1939)

However, the promises of performances later in 1939 began to fall by the wayside as Europe braced itself for war. The two symphonic scores were currently with Van Dalen and the composer remained hopeful that they would receive performances under the conductor Eduard Flipse in Rotterdam. In several of his letters during the war years Bortkiewicz mentioned his symphonies and spoke of concern for the two scores, both of which were still in Holland as the war progressed into 1942. A ruling by the German state that handwritten material and manuscripts could not be sent by post in Europe meant that they remained with Van Dalen throughout this period. There was a brief reprise when a possible performance by the Residentie Orchestra of the second was mooted, and the composer even prepared the orchestral parts by hand, but this fell through. (This suggests that another copy of the score, possibly a rough draft, was held by the composer.) Then, as Europe was crushed under the repression of the Nazis, so correspondence between composer and pianist ceased until the summer of 1946. Although the composer enjoyed some concerts of his music during the early years of the war, by 1944 these had been forbidden as Bortkiewicz and his music were seen as too Russian.

Nothing is mentioned of either symphony until September 1947 when Bortkiewicz mentioned that Flipse had still hoped to conduct a performance of the second. The composer had made a few alterations to the orchestral parts and wanted to correct the full score still held by Van Dalen. Further pleas for the symphonies to be returned suggest that they remained with Van Dalen for the next two years, and the proposed concert by Flipse fell by the wayside. No further mention of these works is to be found in the composer’s remaining letters.

Unfortunately there is no detailed record of the composer’s thoughts about his second symphony. There is also no record of any performances for fifty years until, in February 2002, the work was conducted by Mykola Sukach at a Bortkiewicz festival in Ukraine to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo in E flat minor, opens with the gentle cry of the oboe which immediately evokes the melancholy that haunts this work. As this opening motif is shared across the orchestra so the composer seems to be expressing a sense of uncertainty and changeable moods, growing from helplessness to titanic power. The brass enter with a phrase that reflects a hymn-like reverence and this in turn introduces the second theme on the strings—a melody that feels imbued with Russian soul, and which gently rises towards a brief but impassioned climax before returning to the lower instrumental depths of the orchestra. The opening motif returns, gradually building in magnitude as it is drawn into a development involving all the themes. Overall, this movement coveys the same sense of loss and sadness that also pervades the composer’s writings from this period.

The second-movement scherzo, Vivace, acts as a counterbalance to the first movement, but unlike the buoyant scherzo from his first symphony, this movement still shares with the first movement a sense of sorrow. Its themes feel more dramatic than joyful, particularly those announced by the brass instruments that seem to call out as a theme of ‘Fate’. There is almost a sense of manic energy pervading the first part of this movement—a sense of the madness that was soon to engulf the composer and the people of Europe into war. It sounds stern and merciless, a tide of power that seems to march endlessly on, unstoppable. Bortkiewicz had by this time faced both a world war and a civil war and one can sense his palpable fear of what lay ahead. The Trio offers a moment of brief calm, but the return to the opening Vivace brings a growing sense of menace.

The third movement is a tragic lament. This is the raw emotional heart of the symphony, where Bortkiewicz expressed all his sorrow and disillusion with the world. At first there is no sense of joy, no peace, just pure emotive force; yet as the movement progresses the call of a clarinet seems to signal a measure of hope before being swallowed up in the tortured lament of the strings. This hauntingly beautiful movement seems to mourn a forgotten time, place and people.

If the third movement feels like it has achieved a sense of purification, the symphony’s finale, Vivace (alla breve), engulfs one with its large-scale epic mood. At its core is a wild Slavonic dance that, as it reaches the coda, quotes the powerful and yet brutal ‘Fate’ theme from the second movement. The work’s exuberant conclusion leaves a great question unanswered: will fear and despair resolve to destroy life, or will mankind finally shape his own destiny?

from notes by Malcolm Henbury-Ballan © 2002

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