Sunday, 11 November 2018

Germans and Britons - Leipzig marks the End of the First World War

What real heroes did when it rained in the Somme

(For my piece on Vladimir Jurowski's inspired Eternal Flame concert for Armistice day, please read here)   From Leipzig Peterskirche, the Gedenkkonzert 100 Jahre Ende ertsen Weltkreig (Memorial Concert marking 100 years after the End of the First World War) - Max Reger, Rudi Stephan, Walter Braunfels, Gustav Holst, Ernest Farrar and Samuel Barber.  Alexander Shelley conducts the MDR-Rundfunkchor und MDR-Sinfonieorchester, broadcast via BR Klassik.  It's worth watching as well as listening, as the Peterskirche was bombed during the Second World War, remaining a ruin for many years. Appropriately the concert began with Max Reger's Totenfeier, a section from his incomplete Lateinisches Requiem Op. 145a. The word "Requiem" repeats, weaving through the orchestration like an unbreakable thread, expressing the idea of a funeral procession  

Rudi Stephan's Musik für Orkester in einem Satz (1910) followed. Stephan was killed in battle on 28th September 1915, aged only 28.  It's not a "war" piece, but its initial elegaic mood fits in well . Long , exploratory lines lead to wilder animation, trumpets and other brass calling forward.  Perhaps these are military, but perhaps not, since the instruments can signify different things in different times.  Elliptical lines : watch the trombone tubes moving back and forth. An extended inner section, hushed and mysterious, with muffled pulse, strings rising upwards, the top graced by clarinet, flutes and cello, delicate bell sounds for colour.  As the piece draws to a close the strings swell and a stange, angular melody emerges. It's whimsical yet also provocative, stimulating the orchestra into epressive outburst.  After a diminuendo, the temporary stillness gives way to more invention - whistling string lines, dizzy exuberance and emphatic final chords.  Not music of defeat or disillusion.  This isn't recycled retro but intelligent and highly original, reflecting the creative ferment of Secession Munich, and possibly the "modern" Germany of Weimar art and film and literature. Stephan is definitely on the radar in Germany. There are no less than three recordings of his opera Die ersten Menschen on the market.  It's so "Expressionist" that it's not easy to follow if you're expecting verisimo and washes of colour, but think in terms of Jungian archetypes, semi-pagan folklore and so on. Indeed, the spirit of Schoenberg Moses und Aron (1932) seems to be there in germ.  Imagine if Stephan had lived : he would have felt much common ground with Franz Schreker and Walter Braunfels.  

Throughout his whole career, Braunfels was obssessed by war and the causes of war. To reinterpret his passionate anti-militarism as soft centred "romantic" is a travesty.  Be careful which conductors you listen to. In this concert, he was represented by just one song  Auf ein Soldatengrab op 26 to a poem by Hermann Hesse, written in 1915. ".....Der Jugend wandelt licht in weiten Räumen und hört der Ahnen Chor aus dunklem Quell im heligen Berge träumen".  Please read HERE for more about Braunfels' Orchestral Songs and also look up "Braunfels" on the link below.   

Gustav Holst's Ode to Death (1919) blends voices and orchestra to create lush textures which suddenly ignite into crescendo. returning again to ethereal harmonies "Over the treetops I float thee along, over the rising and sinking waves, come lovely and soothing death, come with joy!". Harps and fine, bell-like tones in the orchestra suggest transcendence.  Ernest Farrar lived for a while in Dresden, not all that far from Leipzig,  so it was good to hear him represented here.   Like Stephan and Braunfels, Farrar was a soldier though he was killed only two days after arriving at the front.  His Heroic Elegy Op 36 was completed in 1916, before he went to war.  Unsurprisngly, it is a war piece, a slow march, lit by flares of intensity : not so much a funeral march biut the long hard slog of soldiers entering a  battlefield, hearing gunfire in the distance, the inexorable tread emphasized by pounding timpani.  The ending is striking - single phrases repeated with silence between, growing ever quieter til all sound disappears.  Samuel Barber's Agnus Dei, in the context of the First World War is something of an anomaly, being Barber's 1966 adaptation of his Adagio for Strings. No ostensible 1914-1918 connectioins here other than that the text used is the Agnus Dei from the Requiem Mass with the words "Dona Nobis Pacem", which just happens to fit.  Sure the Americans entered the war in 1917, but wouldn't it have been fitting to acknowledge the French or the Belgians, Russians or Italians ?   Debussy Berceuse héroïque is about the same length, though without choir, and carries the same message : that patriotism born of love is better than nationalism born of hate.   


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