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Franz MITTLER (1893-1970)
Lieder nach Karl Kraus, Wilhelm Busch, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johann Nepomuk Nestroy Couplrt des Gondremark, Der Tag, Vergelts Gott, An eine fa;te, Das Kind, Alle Vöglein sin schon da.. Trio in G-Dur, Op.3¹, Eine gute Seele, Der eifersüchtige Schmetterling, Heimliche Liebe, Ach, ich fühle es, Die Mühle, Volksweise, Charakterstücke für Klavier². Da bleibet man zeitlebens bei einer Partei, Da ließ sich viel sagen, Na, da hab' ich schon g'nur.
Wolfgang Holzmair, (baritone) Russell Ryan (piano)
recorded ORF Radio/Kulturhaus, Vienna February 2002. ¹ and ² private recording Diana Mittler DDD
PREISER PR90567 [70'47"]

The world of Berlin cabaret is extremely well known, but what of the situation in Vienna? Vienna was, if anything, an even more vibrant hotbed of artistic inventiveness.

These were exciting times, when music, art, theatre and literature were being transformed by modern ideas. In Vienna, there was a counterculture of creative souls who embraced the new and irreverent: fertile ground for subversive new art forms. Thus evolved the world of Viennese cabaret and satirical song. The German counterculture was perhaps more politically astringent, with adherents like Wedekind, Brecht and Weill. The Austrian version coated its bite with the Viennese air of insouciance, but beneath the surface affability, it too had trenchant points to make. This recording is something of a first because it brings the distinctly Viennese cabaret into focus.

Wolfgang Holzmair is a singer of international stature. He is also a musicologist and is respected for his carefully researched championship of Austrian culture and music. He was, for example, among the first to record Eisler and Krenek songs for a wider audience. Thus, any recording by him of relatively unknown repertoire is an event to pay attention to.

Preiser Records, the innovative Austrian recording company is famous for imprints like Lebendige Vergangenheit, but its charismatic founder, Otto Preiser, had his roots in the Viennese cabaret scene. Preiser Records took out a half page advertisement in Gramophone magazine to publicise this recording, knowing its significance. And they are right in terms of its excellent quality. It may need, however, a little more directed, specific publicity to attract a non-specialist audience to its considerable charms.

Viennese cabaret is still a thriving tradition, but its origins lie in the popular theatre and literature of the nineteenth century, if not earlier. Johann Nepomuk Nestroy (1801-1862) created a form of satirical theatre based on brilliantly inventive use of language, wordplays and literary allusion. Three Nestroy poems are set here, two from the play "Eine Wohnung zu vormeiten" (apartment for rent) and one from "Der Talismann". The vigour in the rhyming couplets, and the deft use of dialect is hard to capture on paper. Alas, there is no translation, not even an attempt thereon. Musically, though, the words are set with verve and wit, so something of the flavour comes across.

Many non-German speakers are familiar with Max and Moritz, a pair of tearaways whose adventures were told in rhyming couplets, illustrated by impish cartoons. Their creator, Wilhelm Busch (1809-1894) produced many other books, full of wry, anarchic humour, with witty observations on daily life. For example, in Der eifersüchtiges Schmetterling (The jealous butterfly), a shy butterfly loves a flower but is too shy to take her nectar Then along comes a donkey and eats the flower: so much for dreams. A family, in Heimliche Liebe (Secret love), goes to bed early because the old aunt is "frightfully tired", so two lovers get to spend a long night canoodling. There are translations, which rhyme, even though the meaning is changed somewhat. Although the inspiration behind these songs is literary, it is after all, a recording of music.

Franz Mittler was a pianist who played for Karl Kraus, (1874-1936), the raconteur and cabaret artiste extraordinaire. His journal, Die Fackel was the leading satire magazine in early twentieth century Vienna. Kraus could not write music, so when he sang, his pianists had to play the melodies over until he learned them, and then keep closely to the score so he would not falter. Sometimes he "dictated" the music to them, sometimes, they wrote their own. In this recording, the songs are entirely written by Franz Mittler.

Mittler was a composer and pianist who emigrated to the United States after the Nazis invaded Austria, but returned in his retirement to teach at the Mozarteum in Salzburg – where Holzmair himself teaches today. Two of Mittler's non-vocal works are here, the Trio in G-Dur, Op. 3, written in 1912, and Charakterstücke für Klavier. from the 1920s. They predate his relationship with Kraus, and show his work on its own terms – cheerful, affable and charming. Indeed, the three Charakterstücke are titled Humoresque, Fantasie and Die Spieluhr der kleinen Nana (Little Nana's toy clock). They are performed here by Diana Mittler, the composer's daughter.

Mittler's best known composition is a song to a poem by Rilke, called Volksweise. It was praised by Bruno Walter and performed in front of President Roosevelt in the White House in 1940. It's a charming song, with more than a nod to folk music, but Holzmair's firm rendition lifts it beyond sentimentality. Indeed, it is his performance that makes the whole recording work. Simple as the melodies may be, some of the texts are fiendishly hard to articulate, and the emotions expressed are complex. Precise, clear diction is needed to make the complex word plays come to life. Holzmair's light, lyrical baritone has the flexibility to capture the "Viennese" nonchalance without ever lapsing into the twee-ness some of the more gentle songs might descend into, if sung by a less cerebral interpreter. Congratulations to Preiser for sponsoring this recording, and for choosing a singer as capable of making the most of the material. The notes, however, could be more informative and better organised, and a good, professional translation of the Kraus and Nestroy texts would be invaluable.

Anne Ozorio

 



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