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Stefan WOLPE (1902–1972)
Excerpts from Dr. Einstein's Address about Peace in the Atomic Era (1950) [6.14] (1,5)
Ten early songs (1920) [14.18] (2, 6)
Arrangements of Yiddish Folk Songs (1925) [15.16] (1, 5)
Songs from the Hebrew (1938–1954) [15.30] (3, 4, 6, 7)
Der faule Bauer mit seinen Hunden, Fabel von Hans Sachs (1926) [11.14] (1, 5)
Epitaph (1938) [2.25] (3, 6)
Patrick Mason (baritone) (1)
Tony Arnold (soprano) (2)
Leah Summers (mezzo) (3)
Ashraf Swailam (bass-baritone) (4)
Robert Shannon (piano) (5)
Jacob Greenberg (piano) (6)
Susan Grace (piano) (7)
rec. 24-27 October 2005, Theater C of the Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, New York State.
BRIDGE RECORDS BRIDGE9209 [65.36] 

Stefan Wolpe was born in Berlin and attended the Berlin Conservatory. He enrolled at the Berliner Hochschule fur Musik but only stayed a year, because he found the progressive attitudes to art and education at the Bauhaus far more to his liking. He studied composition under Franz Schreker and was also a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni. In some ways his earlier career and attitudes had parallels with such figures as Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. 

Wolpe did write twelve-tone music but he was a committed socialist and attracted to Hindemith's concept of gebrauchsmusik so wrote pieces for workers unions and communist theatre groups.

As a Jew and a communist, he fled Germany in 1933. For a period he stayed in Austria where he studied with Anton Webern and later moved to Palestine. His time there was limited because he continued to mix writing simple songs for the kibbutzim with more complex, atonal music for concert performance. He moved to the USA in 1938 and remained there until his death.

Wolpe became associated with the abstract expressionists in New York and this led to a reduction of text-based pieces in his output. The majority of his vocal works pre-date the Second World War. The loss of his native tongue and the lively Berlin cultural milieu probably contributed to this. 

This disc of his vocal works starts with his 1950 piece, Excerpts from Dr. Einstein's Address about Peace in the Atomic Era. In January 1950 President Truman had announced that the USA would build the hydrogen bomb and Albert Einstein had responded by speaking out against the bomb. Einstein's speech was printed and Wolpe set around half of it. There is no doubt about his commitment and outrage; the work is a passionate piece of didacticism. Baritone Patrick Mason gives a finely committed performance with superb diction; it is possible to hear every word. What Mason cannot disguise is the rather hectoring tone of the opening. It is only with the words 'Is there any way out of this impasse' that Wolpe relaxes and allows himself a little lyricism. 

Listening to the piece I do not doubt Wolpe's commitment nor his musicality. Unfortunately I found the vocal part rather uninvolving. At times the piano part, well realised by Robert Shannon, seemed to have the greater interest. 

Wolpe destroyed much of his early output, saving only some piano pieces and the ten early songs which were all written in 1920. The group are stylistically disparate. There is no unifying tone and no unifying theme. They are given fine performances by Tony Arnold (soprano) and Jacob Greenberg (piano). Arnold has a lovely focused lyric voice, quite bright in tone and she sings Wolpe's expressionist vocal lines with a fine line. There were moments when, not surprisingly, the pieces recall early Berg songs. 

Wolpe made his Berlin debut as composer and pianist in April 1925 with a programme which included a group of Yiddish folksongs, arranged for Rahel Ermolnikoff. Ermolnikoff was a singer who specialised in modern settings of Jewish folksongs. The decision to include the Yiddish songs, rather than the settings of German poets, may have had an element of defiance in the wake of anti-semitic attacks. 

These pieces are a world away from the early Songs and the Einstein piece. Here Wolpe produced songs which are heavily word-based and inevitably melodic. You can hear hints of other types of Berlin cabaret songs in both the vocal lines and the accompaniment. Baritone Patrick Mason shows his versatility by giving the songs in fine, idiomatic performances modifying his vocal tone to suit the cabaret nature of the pieces. 

The Songs from the Hebrew are another disparate group of pieces written between 1938 and 1954. Wolpe learned Hebrew and was sufficiently versed in the language to read and write it. But in 1949, when a group of the songs were performed in the USA, some of them were translated into English by the poet Hilda Auerbach Morley, who became Wolpe's wife. Here three songs are done in English and three in Hebrew. The songs are shared between two singers. Leah Summers sings passionately but has rather poor diction, rather noticeable as her songs are in English. Ashraf Swailam has an attractive, grainy dark bass-baritone voice. But again, Wolpe's tone seems to turn rather hectoring and I could not always love the songs. Wolpe's piano parts are often significant. In a piece like Isaiah the piano part seems to be more important and more expressive than the vocal line. 

Patrick Mason returns for Wolpe's 1926 setting of Hans Sachs (1494–1576) – the original of Wagner's character. Der faule Bauer mit seinen Hunden is a fable, The Idle Peasant and His Dog. It is a long piece - essentially a cantata. There is an unrelenting element to the piece and again, I found the vocal writing tended towards the hectoring. I found it rather hard work and I think the fault was Wolpe's rather than that of the dedicated Patrick Mason. 

The disc finishes with a short Epitaph, setting an unknown poet. It is nicely sung by Leah Summers. 

Wolpe is still an underrated composer and this disc makes available some of his striking vocal music. That the pieces require work on our part would probably be regarded as no bad thing by the composer. They receive fine committed performances. Ultimately I found some of the works fascinating but uninvolving.

Robert Hugill

 


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