Fontane (1819–1898) was a German pharmacist, who from the 1850s
worked as a journalist, war correspondent and theatre critic.
In the 1860s he started writing ballads – his Archibald Douglas
was set to music by Carl Loewe – and he produced about two thousand
poems and ballads but it is primarily for his novels, written
towards the end of his life, that he will be remembered in German
literature history. Irrungen, Wirrungen (1888) and Effi
Briest (1895) are probably his best known works.
this disc German soprano Ute Beckert sandwiches musical settings
with readings of a number of his poems in a highly interesting
programme. I bet most of the composers, mainly from the 19th
century and the early 20th century, are unknown,
even to many German music-lovers. “Many of them were at one
time quite well-established and respected musicians”, Ute Beckert
writes in the programme notes, “but unfortunately most of their
works have been lost among those of their more famous contemporaries.”
Having myself browsed through lesser-known music from time to
time I know that more often than not one comes upon something
that immediately appeals to you and quite often when playing
such things to musical friends the reaction is: “Why isn’t this
music played?” Probably the reason is that through the years
a canon has been established where there is a sharp dividing
line between the “greats” and the others who are rated as second
class. But in reality there is no such dividing line: there
are compositions by “greats” that are being played just because
they are by one of the “greats”, whereas an unprejudiced ear
can find gems that turn out to be written by someone we have
never heard about.
is the case also with this programme. I am not going to argue
that this is a string of pearls of forgotten masterpieces, but
there is a lot to admire and return to. Some songs are simple
strophic settings, melodious and agreeable – and unpretentious.
And writing a good melody is also an ability that is not given
to everyone. The first two songs are of this kind, August Schäffer’s
Der alte Derffling has a catchy melody that could be
derived from a revival hymn and Sieber’s concluding Guter
Rat is truly lovely in its simplicity.
are more artful. Carl Witting employs a more elaborate accompaniment,
Richard Barth has a rich harmonic language in Wagnerian vein,
and the Finnish composer Ernst Mielck, who died at the age of
22, has such a personal touch in his two songs that one wonders
what could have become of him. He studied in Berlin with Max
Bruch who regarded him as one of his best pupils. Willy von
Moellendorf’s evocative Die zwei Raben has an expressive
piano part and there are echoes of Hugo Wolf. This composer
by the way was an early practitioner of quarter-tone music.
Also Hugo Kaun has a personal voice and in the bleak Der
Gast the threatening piano part reveals the true nature
of the visitor.
Beckert has a beautiful lyric voice and she sings these songs
with warmth and honesty, without trying to invest them with
more meaning than they have. She brings out the melodies and
enunciates the text without undue word-pointing. Her reading
of the poems is also simple and natural but now and then she
becomes more eager, more emphatic and makes one listen more
closely. I would have liked also those poems printed in the
booklet, not only the sung ones. Frank Wasser is a responsive
accompanist but the recording is unfortunately unkind to him.
Set down in very resonant acoustics the piano tone is muddled
– it’s almost the effect when a piano is played in a large empty
church with the sustaining pedal constantly pressed. Otherwise
the balance between singer and instrument is all right.
the sung texts – in German only; the disc is obviously primarily
aimed at a German speaking market – there are good notes (in
German and English). These include valuable information about
these today obscure composers, one of them, Ernst Baeker, born
in 1866 but, strangely enough, no year of his death is known.