I have to say that my first impressions of Felix Woyrsch's music were hardly positive ones: MDG's recording* of his first (acknowledged) symphony suggested his style was dignified and conservative but also marred by a rather dogged, workmanlike quality in his handling of what was sometimes all-too-plain thematic material. I hesitated, therefore, over whether to invest in this new CPO release but it has actually turned out to be a much more satisfying listening experience and I am very glad I gave his music a second chance.
The programme opens with his 'Hamlet' Overture, a well-wrought piece that manages to pack quite a variety of mood and incident into its thirteen minute span. It is loosely programmatic, more in the sense of evoking atmosphere than slavishly depicting the events of the play (though it does conclude with a funeral march), but it does avoid obvious solutions - take the imaginative introduction, for example, which creates a sense of eeriness and foreboding while resisting the orchestral depiction of midnight tolling that other composers had been quick to seize upon in similar works on the subject. The funeral march didn't quite strike me as the grandiose and imposing statement that the liner notes suggested I was going to hear yet I actually think it is better than they imply, being really quite individual in its understated tone and also in its imaginative scoring.
The differences between the first and second symphonies could hardly be more pronounced, not just because the tone of the C major symphony is more uplifting and brighter in general but also because Woyrsch eschews the thick orchestral textures that had marked the earlier work and because his use of counterpoint is more individual and serves the music rather than acting as a compositional straightjacket for his material. The first movement is upbeat, with tautly-sprung rhythms (beautifully realised by the performers) that give it a real sense of momentum, and there are unexpected twists and turns during the music's course that keep the listener engaged. The clarity of texture in Woyrsch's orchestration and his subtle use of instrumental colour (the strings and woodwind sections really come into their own in this piece) make his own claim that his scoring draws upon the influence of Berlioz more credible than was the case in C minor symphony; this quality is notable throughout the work but is particularly effective in the predominantly serene second movement (designated `Sehr langsam und getragen' in the score). In place of a scherzo, Woyrsch pens a set of variations on a folk-like melody for his third movement - cleverly, though, the movement remains an analogue of the traditional scherzo one might have expected to hear on account of Woyrsch's disposition of his individual variations, faster outer ones framing a slower section in the traditionally contrasted manner of scherzo-and-trio; it is a movement of considerable humour and wit in the faster variations (again, inspired writing for the winds) and of surprisingly deep feeling in the slower ones. The finale is as upbeat as much of what has already been heard, Woyrsch's introduction of quasi-fugal passages lending the movement a festive quality without any hint of academic contrapuntal fustiness.
Much credit is due to conductor, Thomas Dorsch, and the Oldenburgisches Staatsorchester, the artists playing this music for all it is worth; I don't know if CPO intend to record a complete cycle of Woyrsch's symphonies but the performers here seem to have a real feel for his music and I can't help wondering if the first might sound rather better in their hands than it does on the MDG release (not that that performance is an intrinsically poor one). The sound quality is bright, clear and natural and - for once - CPO have provided liner notes that are to-the-point and well-written.
If you are unfamiliar with Woyrsch's music, I'd suggest this disc is the one to go for as a introduction to his sound-world: as Late Romantic symphonies go, it indubitably looks back to the masters of the past century but it also displays a good deal of individuality; Woyrsch doesn't fight shy of dissonance but his use of it is pointed and despite his use of a reasonably large orchestra, the second symphony is a lean and muscular work that contrasts markedly with the large-scale statements of some of his contemporaries. It is thematically fresher than his first symphony in general, though I would not describe this composer as a melodist of the first order, but what he does with his material is memorable and enjoyable; even after the first hearing, I found myself recalling passages and movements with some pleasure and wanting to go back and re-listen to them - that can only be a good thing, I think.