Thursday, 28 January 2010

Vienna to Weimar - Song recital

The real star of this recital at Kings Place on 27th January, part of the Vienna to Weimar week, was Erik Levi, who compiled the excellent programme. It was erudite and intelligent, an excellent introduction to that era in song. You can replicate the recital with recordings. It's almost impossible to describe the programme fully here, but maybe this will give some background.

Starting with Franz Schreker's Die feurige Männlein put the whole theme of Vienna to Weimar in context. It's a violent, dissonant song about a horseman cloaked in flames who brings havoc and death to the world. Written in 1915, it's fairly obvious what Schreker's getting at. In this Apocalypse the horseman's a miserable troll. Perhaps it was a mercy that Schreker died before the Holocaust. This song relates to Die Gezeichneten, of which I've written HERE.

Hans Gál escaped early to Scotland and livd to be 97. His Five Songs (1917-21) are beautiful. Listen to audio samples HERE. Der Weissenbach is a lovely miniature. I also love Gál's Das Vöglein Schwermut, more lyrical than Zemlinsky's setting. These were Christian Immler's finest moments in the recital. It's him on the sound clip, with Erik Levi on the piano! Very evocative postludes and preludes, in the recital well played by Helmut Deutsch. And Drei Prinzessinnen (Bethge), with a delicate, refined mood of melancholy. Yet the line expands zu den Ufern, wo die Freiheit wohnt. Immler sings the world Freiheit with fullness and feeling, for it's the goal the princesses will never reach.

Hearing these Berthold Goldschmidt songs, Ein Rosenweig and Nebelweben, made me feel Sensucht too, because I used to have a recording of them with Goldschmidt playing. Even if I replace the one I gave away, it won't be quite the same. The CD I had belonged to Goldschmidt himself. It's a long story which I'll save for another time. Goldschmidt led the Matthews brothers in their performing version of Mahler's 10th, but was a fairly self-effacing man, whose music didn't get into the repertoire until fairly late in his life. Incidentally he himself was taught by Franz Schreker, among others.

Hanns Eisler gets a bad press because he's mostly known in the US for being kicked out of Hollywood by the Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. His political music is extremely important. In many ways it was he who gave Brecht more backbone than Weill did. his political songs tie in with the Brecht belief in direct communication, which is why they're simple and can be sung by untrained voices. and performed in non-concert-hall situations. That's how to reach the masses. But there's a lot more to Eisler.

Here we heard some of Eisler's Galgenlieder, much closer to the sophisticated, exquisitely crafted art songs and chamber pieces that Eisler's reputation really should be based upon. They're literate, whimsical songs. Die beiden Trichter, for example, needs to be read from the page because the visual shape of the poem, as written, is crucial to its meaning. Two funnels pour into a single source til the last drop fades away. The poem's shaped like a triangle, wider at the top, ending with just a "w". As does Eisler's music, ending with a single note.  HERE is a link to Eisler's song Cripple Brigade. LOTs of Eisler on this site.

Eisler also wrote quirky little pieces based on snippets from the newspapers, ideas condensed to haiku-like extremes. Not at all populist in the usual sense, but if you like cryptic crosswords, you might like this other aspect of Hanns Eisler.

One of the myths about Erich Korngold popular on the internet is that he was only "forced" into writing for the movies by the Nazis. In fact, he was smart enough to realize long before the Anschluss that film had a future, the "opera" of the New World. Surprisingly, there aren't all that many settings of Shakespeare, so Korngold's Songs of the Clown have a place in the repertoire. It's interesting to think about Korngold adapting to Anglo culture, writing music for Robin Hood, Elizabeth and Essex and of course adapting Mendelssohn's Midsummer's Nights Dream.

It's also interesting to think of Hanns Eisler writing hits in Hollywood, though he began with uncompromising Kuhle Wampe (watch full download HERE) and continued to write art music for documentaries like Resnais's Night and Fog, one of the best films about the Holocaust.

Prof Levi's programme thus turned to America. Zemlinsky didn't write for film, though he might have done great things given his feel for lushness. But he was interested in American music, meaning jazz. Quite a liberating thing for him, I think, a pity he died relarively young. Like many intellectuals of the time, he was interested in the Harlem Renaissance and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Grollen die Tomtoms, rollen die Tomtoms, grollen, rollen wecken das Blut. This is Hollywood Africa, exotic and louche, but it's fun music anyway. Which is perhaps why there are so many different recordings of Afrikanischer Tanz, and it's sometimes used as an encore. Listen to Michael Volle with James Conlon, definitely quirky and "lowdown".

More "Black America" seen through German eyes/ears in Eisler's Ballad of Nigger Jim. This is closer to the bone because Nigger Jim bucks Jim Crow and gets lynched. Eisler's ending parodies popular song but the message isn't funny. Similarly, Ballade von der Krüppelgarde,(op 18 1929/31) is a march, but the marchers are cripples. led by a Field Marshal who is a crawling torso. They've been maimed in war but no-one cares. So the rhythms are off centre, like the movements of men who can't march in line. It's horrific stuff despite the pretend insouciance. There's a truly biting recording by Ernst Busch (of course). Wir sind die Krüppelgarde, das strärkste Batallion, die alleresrtes Reihe in der Weltrevolution. So what if the sentiments are left wing? It's a very good song. And in any case, things have not changed in this world.

An aside - strange how Weimar people were fascinated by things English/American. Brecht goes on and on about exotic places which really live in his mind. Nigger Jims abound in various forms.

Which leads to Ernst Krenek. After his smash hit Jonny Spielt Auf, with the iconic black musician, Krenek took a sabbatical in the Salzkammergut insteade of capitalizing on his success in Vienna. Krenek travelled light because he wanted to probe deeper into what shaped the Austrian psyche (as opposed to the Viennese).

The Reisebuch aus den Oesterreicheschen Alpen
is a panorama of unforgiving mountain landscapes and the harsh lives of peasants before modern utilities. In 1927, they were just finishing the D numbers, and Schubert wasn't quite so ubiquitous as he is now. So Krenek's pilgrimage was also a means of engaging with what made a city boy like Schubert respond to the countryside as he did. Krenek's cycle (to his own poems) isn't High Romantic although it's beautiful. There are songs about rich Bavarians burning down the roads in leathers on motorbikes, and a mention of Hitler, not long after Hitler got out of prison. But then, Schubert set contemporary poetry, too.

Krenek's Reisebuch aus den Oesterreicheschen Alpen is such an important work that it really deserves to be written about in more detail than this, so I'll do something more on it later. Shockingly, there's only one recording, by Wolfgang Holzmair, made in 1998. It's beautiful, the CD cover designed to look like a 1920's photo album. Holzmair passionately champions the cycle and toured with it for several years. He also devised a concert programme where he mixed Krenek's songs with Schubert's. That too, he recorded, but on a small label, almost impossible to find. Since wrfiting this I've found Julius Patzak's even earlier recording, which is wonderful, too.

Please see my other posts on the Kings Place Vienna to Weimar event – lots of links. Also to full movie downloads. There's a lot on this site about the music of this period, one of my special interests.

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