WETZ: Symphony No. 3 in B flat major, op. 48.
Berlin Symphony Orchestra/Erich Peter, cond.

Sterling CDS-1041-2 {DDD} TT: 58:46

From a vantage point of centuries or decades after the fact, we tend to treat historical musical styles as if we were comparing paint chips—distinct, with easily discernable contrasts. Haydn is Classical, Berlioz Romantic, Stravinsky Modern. The Modern period begins somewhere around 1900 and ends in 1950. In fact, at any given time, one tends to find a stylistic spectrum—styles bleeding into each othe—even within a single work by a single composer. Georg Schumann, one of the great German Romantic choral composers, died in the 1950s. Rachmaninoff, usually cited as a last-gasp Romantic, I believe became predominantly a Modern one in his works from the Twenties on. Richard Wetz (1875-1935) was born three years after Vaughan Williams and died one year after the completion of Vaughan Williams's granitic Fourth Symphony. Wetz finished this symphony in 1922. By that time, even Rachmaninoff and Schmidt had begun to move off the late-Romantic dime. However, Wetz's output resembles, and really doesn't go beyond, Bruckner's.

Perhaps I'm not the person to review this music. I'm not Bruckner's greatest fan, although I certainly recognize his importance among symphonists. Before Bruckner, 19th-century theorists tended to think of Wagner's idiom as antithetical to the classical symphony. They had sound technical reasons to think this, but we won't go into them here. In any case, Bruckner found a profound fit of the two. Wetz follows the path Bruckner laid out. Wetz strikes me as a large, serious artistic nature, struggling to break into the clear. The third symphony shows generous proportions, a high-minded tone without pretension or inflation, and honest craft. But something's missing. Comparing this to Bruckner, one thinks of Mark Twain's distinction between the right word and the almost-right word: "lightning and the lightning-bug." At no point, does this symphony really grab the listener by the ears. There's no moment that genuinely astonishes or thrills you. The symphony is good enough so that I kept waiting for something astonishingly great to happen, but it turns out I waited for Godot.

Nevertheless, one can't really call the symphony routine. The first movement, a massive sonata-allegro, presents a complex argument (on at least six motives, some of them related) and builds a long, long narrative of over twenty minutes without a stumble or mere note-spinning. The religioso and lamenting second movement begins gorgeously, but before two minutes go by, it's as if someone switched off the light. ClichÈ gestures of Wagner-derived woe creep in. Again, nothing is badly done, but it does mostly strike one as dreadfully second-hand. The third-movement scherzo (really, a L”ndler) succeeds best, tracing an unpredictable path through widely-distant keys. The liner notes claim a similarity with the scherzo of Tchaikovsky's PathÈtique, but to me it connects more strongly, once again, to Bruckner.

The fourth movement finale recaps the themes of the previous movements, but it seems perfunctory. One finds more perspiration than poetry in the treatment. This is for me the weakest movement, and rhetorically it should be one of the strongest. It's just not a good idea to leave nattering.

If ever a symphony needed Gunter Wand and the Berlin Philharmonic, this one's it. The Berlin Symphony just doesn't cut it. The strings sound weak, and both the strings and the winds suffer from occasional intonation problems. Although Erich Peter leaves you in no doubt about the symphony's virtues, he doesn't make it better than it is, either. The performance left me frustrated, in the land of the not-quite good enough.

S.G.S. (Feb. 2002)