HINDEMITH: Die junge Magd, op. 23/2. TOCH: Die chinesische Flöte, 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.

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 than rubble 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)