For most people, myself included, the first taste of the music of Walter Braunfels came via Decca’s Entartete Musik series, and in particular the wonderful recording of Die Vögel
(448679-2). This was the opera, based upon a play by Aristophanes, which at its premiere at the National Theatre in Munich in 1920 was a sensational success and proved to be his musical breakthrough. So it was again when the recording was released in 1996. It was one of the greatest successes of the series, winning Braunfels a whole new audience. There is also a Blu-Ray set from Arthaus
(Los Angeles/James Conlon).
Since then a slow trickle of recordings have appeared, but hardly the quantity you would expect for someone regarded as one of the leading German composers of the first half of the twentieth century. Die Vögel
was such a success that it led to Adolf Hitler, not realising that the Catholic Braunfels was half-Jewish, asking him to compose an anthem for the Nazi Party. This was a commission he was to turn down.
Braunfels became a Catholic, converting from Protestantism, as a result of his experiences during the First World War. He found solace in his faith which influenced many of his post-war works, Die Vögel
included. This is especially to be felt in his excellent large-scale Te Deum
of 1922 which has been compared Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Shortly after this he was invited to become the founder director of the Cologne Academy of Music, a position he held from 1925 to 1933 and again from 1945 to 1950. In 1933 he lost this post at the Academy due to the political and racial circumstances associated with the rise of Nazism. This led to a total ban on the performance of his music and of his own musical activities. His response was to withdraw into a kind of “internal emigration”. He then turned even more to his Catholic faith for strength, the first result of this being the work presented on this disc, Verkündigung
or The Annunciation
(1933-1935). It's a kind of mystery play rather than an opera, based on a story by Paul Claudel. It tells the story of Peter von Ulm, a master mason, and his relationship with Violaine, the woman he has wronged. The synopsis tells us that he “once tried to do violence to her”. Peter begs Violaine’s forgiveness, telling her that through his guilt he has become a leper. He wishes to atone for his sins before his death which he feels is not long away. Here Braunfels can be seen to be associating his present situation with that of the main character, Peter, the leper rejected and cast out by society. This also led to a shift in musical style, gone are the lush melodies of Die Vögel
, instead the music is more bitter and linear in style. This if anything, makes the music more dramatic which suits the plot, especially as Violaine forgives Peter and gradually takes on his guilt. She too becomes a leper and dies while Peter is gradually cured. This is quite a difficult and harrowing story. It's one that would prove challenging for most to set to music but Braunfels achieves it superbly well.
This recording has been taken from live performances but the recording engineers have worked wonders. The recorded sound is excellent and you do not realise that it is recorded live until the applause at the end of the work. The performance is also wonderful, whilst the whole cast are on top form. Special mention must be made of the beautiful soprano tones of Juliane Banse as Violaine, and the tenor Mathias Klink as Peter von Ulm. It is through their interplay that this work really comes to life. Also worth a special mention is the wonderful Robert Holl, who although in his mid-sixties, still gives a fully rounded portrait of Andreas. In fact on the evidence of these two discs all the performers give nothing less than full commitment. This might not be Die Vögel
, with its lush melodious style, but it is one of the finest examples of Braunfels’ art on CD.