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MGB Records (Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund)

Wladimir VOGEL (1896 Ė 1984)
Wagadus Untergang durch die Eitelkeit (1930/1948)a
Worte (1962)b
Abschied (1973)c
Hanneke Van Bork (soprano)a; Lydia Vintura (alto)a; Derrick Olsen (baritone)a; Martina Bovet, Karin Maria Krauer (speakers)b; Kammersprechchor Züricha; Belgian Radio Choira; Belgian Saxophone Ensemblea; Festival Strings Lucernebc; Léonce Grasa, Rudolf Baumgartnerbc
Recorded: Belgian Radio and Nederlands Omroep Stichting Hilversum, 1968 and Radio Studio, Zürich, November 1995 (Worte, Abschied)
MGB CD 6128 [40:28 + 53:41]


A couple of months ago, while reviewing a recent Realsound disc with orchestral music by Vogel, I mentioned a recording of one of his early major works slightly pre-dating these pieces, his dramatic oratorio Wagadus Untergang durch die Eitelkeit completed in 1930. This substantial piece of music is a key work in his output as well as an important landmark in his musical progress. Besides the earlier 3 Sprechliedern nach August Stramm (1922), Wagadus Untergang is Vogelís first major work in which he used a speaking chorus, which was to become one of his trade marks. This, however, was not particularly new then since Milhaud had already used a speaking chorus in his Choéphores Op.23 (1915); but Vogel was to make it entirely his own in many later works such as in Thyl Claes (Part I in 1938 and 1941/2, Part II in 1943/5) and Arpiade (1954), to mention but two of them.

The oratorio is based on an episode from Dausi, the heroic tale of the North West African Berber tribe, published by Leo Frobenius. The Dausi tells of the journey of the Berbers from the coast of North Africa, across the Sahara to the bend of the Niger river. The migration, which is narrated in the second movement Ode, lasted several centuries and was divided into three stages, over Agada (present-day Agadez), Ganna (i.e. the old kingdom of Ghana, north of the modern state of the same name) and finally as far as Silla (near present-day Segu), close to the town of Ouagadougou. As Claudio Danuser rightly remarks in his excellent notes, Wagadu is not a mere place name, but rather symbolises State and Fatherland in the spiritual meaning. The fate of Wagadu is told in the second movement Ode and briefly recapitulated in the Finale: Wagadu has fallen four times, through vanity, through a breach of trust, through greed and through strife; but on each occasion, it re-emerged in new glory. On the fifth occasion, Wagadu re-appears in the hearts of men. The core of the oratorio, however, deals with the story of Gassire, which depicts the downfall of the rulers of Dierra and the first migration to the South. Gassire, the son of the old king Nganamba, would like to reign in his fatherís place and wishes the king was dead (the Freudian implication that Vogel found in the tale). An old sage prophesies that Gassire would carry a lute and sing the Dausi, which means that Gassire will not become a king but a bard, for only bards can sing the Dausi. The lute, however, cannot sing by itself for "wood cannot sing"; but it must be carried out in battles and soak blood. "But this will be the downfall of Wagadu". So, Gassire goes into battle seven times and looses seven of his eight sons; and, though his sonsí blood dripped onto the lute, the lute does not sing. Gassire and his family are driven out of Dierra, and set off on their journey to the South. One night, the lute begins to sing. At that very moment, the old king dies. Gassire mourns his fatherís death, and Wagadu falls for the first time.

Musically speaking, besides the still tentative use of speaking chorus and of some sort of Sprechgesang, the oratorio is laid-out along fairly traditional patterns alternating choral movements, arias, battle choruses (Kampfchor), laments (Klagechor) and ensembles. The musical idiom, too, is clearly of its times, often reminiscent of, say, Hindemith or Weill. The most striking feature of Vogelís oratorio is the absence of any traditional orchestral forces imaginatively replaced by a saxophone quintet resourcefully used throughout the piece. In a very interesting article (in German only) printed in the insert notes, Vogel explains that he did not want to use a traditional orchestra, that he considered scoring the piece for a symphonic wind ensemble which he nevertheless found lacking in homogeneity and that he finally decided for a saxophone quintet which covers a wide range while preserving a specific, uniform sound palette. I must say that the sounds and the powerful expression he draws from such ensemble are quite stunning and remarkably effective.

The score was completed in 1930 and published by Bote & Bock in 1931. Hermann Scherchen planned to perform it as soon as possible. The political situation in Germany at that time (i.e. 1933) brought the project to nought. The piece was eventually first performed in 1935 during the World Fair in Brussels. Scherchen conducted the first performance at the Palais des Beaux Arts. In 1936, Albert Coates conducted it with the BBC Chorus whereas another performance took place in 1938 in Basel. The performing material was destroyed during World War II when Berlin was heavily hit by bombs. Fortunately enough, the composer was able to reconstruct the piece from his sketches (this was completed in 1948), and Ricordi published it in 1950. It then was performed again in Zürich in 1955 and eventually revived in 1968 during the Holland Festival, which is what we have here.

Our memory often "moves in mysterious ways". I quite remember reading about this live performance of Wagadus Untergang during the 1968 Holland Festival, but I had completely forgotten its release on a double LP set published by Ex-Libris in 1973. On the occasion of the centenary of Vogelís birth, Musiques Suisses decided to re-issue it in CD format. While showing its age, the recorded sound is still quite good. I for one was also very happy to have such a vivid testimony of Léonce Grasí and of the Belgian Saxophone Ensembleís artistry available again.

Vogel regularly set words by his friend Hans Arp as in Arpiade and Worte, the latter included here. He scored Worte ("Words") for two female speaking voices and string orchestra (the piece had been commissioned by the festival Strings Lucerne and their conductor Rudolf Baumgartner). When heard immediately after Vogelís early experiments with speaking voices in Wagadus Untergang, the writing for voices is more adventurous and more sophisticated. The often virtuoso part for voices is precisely notated, and calls for a good deal of agility and subtlety on the speakersí part, whereas the string writing is simply superb. Arpís long poem deals, as it were, with all the possible aspects of words. It is a rather difficult text, with many word plays, that obviously meant much to the composer who has detailed his approach and analysis of the poem in another interesting essay printed in the booklet. A rather demanding work that only yields its many secrets on (many) repeated hearings.

This is not the case with the deeply moving elegy Abschied ("Farewell") composed in memory of the Zürich patron of the arts, Karl Weber, the husband of the pianist Margrit Weber whom some of you will surely remember for her recordings of contemporary music made for Deutsche Gramophon. The music here speaks for itself, and does not call for any further comments. Though stylistically more advanced than, say, Barberís celebrated Adagio, it could become as popular, for it is a very moving piece, for all its brevity and restraint.

This is an important release by all counts, and one that has been rather overlooked, I am afraid. Vogelís music deserves respect and consideration, and is still currently rather underrated. Releases such as this one superbly help putting his music in perspective by providing for a badly needed re-assessment of his achievement.

This box is superbly produced with excellent notes in four languages as well as an interesting essay on Vogelís output by Walter Labhart as well as the already mentioned articles by Vogel (Labhartís and Vogelís essays are in German only). Thus, in short, a major release that should not be ignored.

Hubert Culot


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