HINDEMITH: Die junge Magd, op. 23/2. TOCH: Die chinesische
op. 29. Interviews with Ruth Lange and Elfride Trötschel.
Ruth Lange (contralto); Elfride Trötschel (soprano); Arno Birr (flute);
Staatskapelle of Dresden Chamber Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth, Hans Löwlein.
Hänssler CD PH07043 (F) (ADD MONO) TT: 54:39.
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Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod. After World War I, Germany, on the losing
end at Versailles, found itself in economic and social upheaval. Inflation
had risen into Fantasyland (a pound of butter could go for three million
marks), and very few were living well. Many Germans fled, to Central and
South America and to the United States. State-run opera houses closed down,
and with them, their orchestras.
The arts suffered from lack of cash rather than of creativity. Klimt, Klee,
Grosz, and Ernst painted and drew. Mann and Rilke wrote. The Late Romantic
musical tradition carried on with Korngold, Zemlinsky, Schmidt, and Schrecker,
while a new Modernism arose from the works of Schoenberg, Hindemith, Weill,
and Toch. Since the Twenties German avant-garde usually found itself strapped
for dough and large venues, it produced a lot of work for smaller forces,
of which it made both a virtue and an artistic principle. Less was more,
the leaner the better. Think of Schoenberg's chamber symphonies or Weill's
Dreigroschenoper and Frauentanz. The Strauss or Mahler song cycle, accompanied
by a sumptuously large orchestra, was usually out of the question, so we
get a lot of songs with expanded chamber ensemble accompaniment.
The Hindemith and Toch on the program provide two examples (both 1922),
well-known and -regarded in their day, now unfortunately more or less relegated
to music specialists. Hindemith sets a cycle of poems by Georg Trakl, a
severe depressive and drug addict (God help us, also a pharmacist), who
committed suicide by cocaine overdose at 27. He was also a leading writer
of the Expressionist school. Die junge Magd (the young maid) consists of
six poems about a young girl who dies either violently or by illness. Death
and decay become the main themes, expressed through images of blood, carrion,
night, flies, shrouds, and crows. The poems, however, sing in a strangely
beautiful way, if you can stand the subject. Hindemith captures this in
his setting for contralto and an unusual combination of flute, clarinet,
and string quartet. The music wraps these poems in handsome cool. The music
never raises its voice or its level of agitation. It's a bit like walking
into a mysterious evening.
Toch, on the other hand, takes from Hans Bethge's highly influential anthology, Die
chinesische Flöte (the Chinese flute), the same source for Mahler's
Das Lied von der Erde. Toch uses a soprano and an ensemble of 14 soloists
and, like Mahler, consciously builds a symphonic structure -- a chamber
symphony, if you like. If you expect Mahler, Toch will disappoint you.
Mahler chooses his texts to reflect themes of evanescence and farewell.
Toch's selection doesn't really hang together, literarily. He achieves
cohesion through the music and through musical symbols, the main one being
the solo flute, which becomes the voice of poetry. Three poems -- two by
Li-Po, one by Confucius -- are surrounded by instrumental interludes, played
without a break, which constitute the main musical matter. The soprano
sings for less than ten minutes, which helps distinguish the various sections.
A slow, enigmatic introduction tells of the sound of a mysterious flute
at night. A frantic scherzo depicts a poet driven crazy by the noise of
a rat. It's gone in the wink of an eye. A calm finale sings of the eternal
renewal of nature and the brief lot of man. The score requires five percussion
players (nine left for everything else), but they don't get to just stand
back and take a whack. It's a subtly shaded element, especially in the
intro, reminding me a bit of the beginning of Milhaud's L'Homme et
son désir, but not so in-your-face. It's a little like reflective string-quartet
music, where one instrument blends into another, if you can believe that
of largely unpitched percussion.
Both performances come from Dresden in the late Forties. As readers of
Slaughterhouse-Five know, the Allies bombed Dresden so heavily
that the atmosphere caught fire. After the war, the city was little more
and under Soviet occupation. However, it also had become home to remarkable
musicians. The conductor Joseph Keilberth saw it as his duty to perform
music that the Nazis had suppressed and became an especial champion of
Hindemith and Reger. Hans Löwlein, Keilberth's second-in-command,
generally accompanied Keilberth from one appointment to another. He was
probably known best for his work with Walter Felsenstein's Komische Oper.
Both men not only keep order among players working with what was, in context,
contemporary music, but also give them freedom of communal expression,
as befits chamber music. The world has largely forgotten Ruth Lange and
Elfride Trötschel, two singers of immense culture and sensitivity,
who make their difficult parts sound natural and dramatically appropriate,
all the while delivering accuracy of pitch and rhythm. Trötschel died
relatively young of cancer at 44, and I believe both resided in East Germany,
which hampered their international recognition. Frankly, they would be
considered outstanding musicians even today. The performances go way beyond
the usual professional read-through, although the sound is mono, it's almost
completely free of the "crinkling cellophane" phenomenon. I'm
a Toch and Hindemith fan, so I'm thrilled by this release. I tentatively
suggest as well that those generally interested in classic Modernism
might find it well worth their time.
S.G.S. (June 2010)