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Hanns EISLER (1898-1963)
There's Nothing Quite Like Money (arranged by D Justus Noll)
Sylvia Anders (voice), D Justus Noll (keyboards, clarinet), The Stephen Roane Quartet
rec. 27-28 March 1981, New York City. DDD
LABOR LAB 7026-2 [77:13]

Kurt Weill may be better known as Berthold Brecht's collaborator, but Eisler was by far more politically and musically advanced. Eisler was a political being, without compromise for popularity. Forced out of Europe by the Nazis, he was also forced out of the United States for his communist beliefs. Since the DDR could not ban such a hero of the revolution, his music remained loved in East Germany, even though he unequivocally opposed totalitarian cant both on the left as well as the right. He became a symbol of rebellion. He was idolised by those who opposed the regime, then taken up by the western "protest generation" of 1968.

Thus this recording was made in 1981, on the crest of the revival of Eisler's music. Eisler was the hero of the European avant-garde, and widely performed, both in agitprop cabaret and in experimental music circles. Heiner Goebbels, Dagmar Krause and others made important recordings: Goebbels, now a well respected, established composer, still acknowledges the influence, as his Eislermateriel of 2003 shows. D Justus Noll, whose adaptations of Eisler's songs form this recording, was also part of this scene, as was Sylvia Anders, daughter of the tenor Peter Anders. They were building on Eisler's belief that his music should "speak directly to the people". If jazz or avant-garde transcriptions brought the message to a larger audience, so be it. Thus they are sung in English, to reach a wider, international public. Translations are mainly by the great Brecht scholar Eric Bentley. Bentley himself made a recording of his translations, but it is only available in specialist circles. They are accurate, and capture much of the acerbity of the originals.

Anders' performance though, is eccentric. She may be singing English words but her intonation is definitely German. It's not so bizarre when you remember that it expressed Eisler's German soul for a non German public at a time when Eisler was relatively unknown in the English speaking world. Moreover, she keeps the original musical phrasing even when the words don't fit, so even though the effect may be odd, it's in some ways more "true" to the original than if her syntax were anglophile. The effect is unsettling. In some songs, this works. For example, The Song of a German Mother and The German Miserere are rooted in the context of Nazi Germany. Perhaps the ultimate message is universal but they are so era-specific that they can't really be appreciated without appreciating the German background. More controversially, though, pieces like The Solidarity Song are performed as if they were "just" songs. The Solidarity Song comes from the film Kuhle Wampe, the great classic movie of working class struggle. It moves from personal tragedy to the wider political arena. People on the bus in the final scene discuss Marxist dialectic in simple, every day terms. Then the film shows people in carrying on their busy, ordinary lives and the song returns like a refrain of eternal hope. "Forward ! And let's remember, what our strength was and shall be !" It's a political statement, let there be no mistake. There's no room in it for emotional shading of any kind. It may be left wing but no less intolerant of self doubt than similar right wing anthems would be, only too soon. But that's what agitprop is. It's quite different from genre pieces like Mother Beimlein or Ballad of Marie Sanders where feelings are more subtle.

The Hollywood Elegies, which make up seven of the recordings 24 songs are something of a special case. Eisler wrote his Hollywood Liederbuch as a kind of meditation on the German experience and his sense of alienation in n the United States. They are technically in a different league from the political songs, and it's no exaggeration to call them some of the most powerful art songs of the twentieth century. Anders recording is one of the earlier ones, but isn't particularly distinctive.

This recording, though, is very much of its time, in the sense that Noll and Anders were interpreting Eisler for a new market. Eisler believed in communicating. His message was important, even if the medium was adapted. At least Goebbels and Krause, Noll and Anders did something original with the material. They couldn't recreate the exact context in which Ernst Busch brought the music to life in Eisler's time. Busch remains the most authentic and powerful interpreter of Eisler's music ever, but he was unique. He wasn't just a singer but an active part of the political ferment of times. He spent his war years, unlike Brecht and Eisler, in a concentration camp. He also one of the lead actors in Kuhle Wampe. When he did cabaret his edge it wasn't for amusement. When he spat out songs against capitalism and Hitler, he was speaking from genuine experience, which later interpreters, like Robyn Archer, fortunately, can only imagine. He created the style, and was the true original. Fortunately, his recordings are readily available these days, remaining the ultimate benchmark.

Anne Ozorio

 

 



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