RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Suites & Overtures for the Radio
Franz SCHREKER (1878-1934)
Kleine Suite für Kammerorchester (1928) [16:38]
Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Bunte Suite Op.48 für Orchester (1928) [21:29]
Eduard KÜNNEKE (1885-1953)
Tänzerische Duite Op.26 - Concerto Grosso für Jazzband und grosses Orchester (1929) [29:54]
Mischa SPOLIANSKY (1898-1985)
Charleston Caprice (1930) [6:08]
Max BUTTING (1888-1976)
Sinfonietta mit Banjo Op.37 (Erste Rundfunkmusik) (1929) [17:48]
Heitere Musik Op.38 (Zweite Rundfunkmusik für kleines Orchester) (1929) [17:00]
Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Divertimento für Radio-Orchester (1929) [19:03]
Mischa SPOLIANSKY (1898-1985)
Charleston Caprice (1930) - concert edition by Ernst Theis [6:27]
Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden/Ernst Theis
rec. Börse, Coswig, August 2006, July 2007, Lukaskirche Dresden, August 2009; Alter Schlachthof Dresden, August 2010; Konzertsaal der Hochschule für Musik "Carl Maria von Weber" Dresden, August 2011
CPO 777838-2 [68:05 + 64:30]
An unexpected box of delights. I like absolutely everything about this treasure-trove of a two disc set from CPO. The title "Suites & Overtures for the Radio" led me to expect some entertaining festival of light music - which I had no doubt I would enjoy. In fact this is something altogether more fascinating, rewarding and intriguing.
Aside from the considerable musical delights offered here the set rediscovers a sub-genre of music I had never been aware of and another that was crushed and ultimately forgotten by the rise of the Nazis in Pre-War Germany. Easiest to quote at length from the excellent - yes really excellent CPO booklet:-
"A laboratory of radio history: German broadcasting was barely five years old when West German Radio issued its mission statement to progressively minded composers in 1929..... scores [were] commissioned from the best-known contemporary composers by virtually every German broadcaster, the object being to produce pieces adapted to the technical potential of the new mass medium. Among these composers were Eduard Künneke and Edmund Nick, even though both mainly wrote light music. But the dividing lines within this field of contemporary music were fluid: a glance at [the] circle of composers addressed reveals the names of Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, Pavel Haas, Ernst Toch and Franz Schreker..... The Radio Composition genre arose at a time when Germany's light music was witnessing its final flowering - before being expropriated and brought to an untimely end by the Nazis. Radio compositions were like a point of intersection between the light and the various currents of contemporary art music that flourished in the Weimar Republic.... music that drew its strength from the innovations of its day.... knew no musical boundaries .... jazz and dance music stand cheek by jowl with classical forms and avant-garde innovations."
At considerable length the booklet explains that there was an idealistic sense of social engineering underpinning these scores. Away from the conventions of the concert hall it was perceived that the average listener would accept music they heard as simply that without preconceptions or pre-judgements. The other consideration was to create a repertoire which took account of the technical limitations of the broadcast format - limited technology at both the sending and receiving ends of the broadcast chain - and minimise the impact the technology would have on the music. Again the liner quotes fascinatingly from both an "Artist's Manifesto" and a technical guide giving composers insights into what would 'work' best on radio; "treat the percussion with caution - in particular avoiding the bass drum". What is terribly poignant is the realisation that this brief musical Spring lasted just four years from the 17th January 1929 when the Schreker Suite recorded here became the first time in radio history all the German-language broadcasters joined together to transmit a so-called 'idiomatic radio composition' to 1933 with the Nazis gaining power and the propagandist power of radio being subverted to infinitely more sinister ends.
So to the actual music. Disc 1 opens with this self-same Schreker Suite. If like me, you know the composer through the lavishly-scored hothouse dramas recorded on Chandos by Vassily Sinaisky or Die Gezeichneten recorded by Decca as part of their wonderful Entartete Musik Series this dapper suite comes as something of a shock. In six movements and scored for single wind - which does quirkily include a contra-bassoon and saxophone - two horns, trumpets and trombones, tuba, piano, harp, percussion and strings this is a model of clarity of texture and musical form. Even the movement titles hearken back more to something neo-classical; Präludium, Canon, Fughette being just three. This is a gem of a work - emotionally detached, which in Schreker is possibly a good thing! - but with a quite brilliant handling of the instrumental group. The aforementioned Fughette is a delight. I suppose it might be characterised as light but only in the sense that it does not seek to burden itself with any great extra-musical message or meaning. Instead the movements conjure moods and impressions - the 4th movement Intermezzo a rather hauntingly static landscape - imaginatively scored throughout. Saxophones - either singly or in groups are a common feature of the works in this set - I suspect because the timbre was well-suited to recording and broadcast. Schreker doubles his saxophone with other instruments in a fascinating and interesting way - quite unlike anything else I know. The closing Capriccio is playful in a way I would not associate with Schreker either - a stunningly brilliant trumpet solo just one of many stellar contributions from the excellent Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden. This might not be Schreker as we expect to hear him but I love it.
Ernst Toch has been well represented on CPO already with a complete cycle of his Symphonies. The Toch of those Symphonies is much closer to the Toch of the Bunte [Colourful] Suite performed here. Again, another real discovery and a charmer. There are more echoes here of similar suites for theatre and film that Shostakovich was producing at around the same time. A fascinating thought since it must be likely that this music was being written in splendid ignorance of the other's work. Toch has a more deliberately gaudy style - the music more raucous, more sardonic. I would imagine 1929 technology struggles with some of the more thickly scored passages - but nothing to trouble the consistently impressive CPO engineering here. Again it seems rather pointless to try and fix this music's position on some light/serious music axis. Part of the reason I have enjoyed this set so much is precisely its refusal to be categorised. So the coolly poised Intermezzo of this suite sits next to a very Shostakovichian slyly humorous Marionetten-tanz, which in turn is followed by a strange ghostly Galante Passacaglia all rounded off by a riotously neurotic Merry-go-round.
One approach to mass appeal in 1929 was deemed to lie "in adopting and contrasting the rhythmic elements of modern dance music." Given his background in operetta, it might seem unlikely that the composer to take up this challenge most wholeheartedly was Eduard Künneke. Disc 1 of this set is completed with his Tänzerische Suite Op.26 subtitled Concerto Grosso für eine Jazzband und grosses Orchester. Another five movement suite this is pure pleasure from start to end. It seems that once commissioned by Berlin Radio, Künneke got rather carried away - the scale of the work and the complexity of its scoring rather overwhelming the carefully laid out precepts mentioned earlier. Whatever may have caused 1929 sound engineers headaches is our substantial gain.
This is joyful music but also a score that skilfully integrates the 1920s jazz idiom into a large-scale symphonic score. Künneke keeps his orchestra and jazz-band - basically a rhythm section with keyboard and banjo, a bank of saxes and brass and a solo violin separate leaving them to 'comment' on the other in true Concerto Grosso style. Huge credit to the players here and conductor/driving force behind the project Ernst Theis who 'hit' the style of this music to perfection. Crucially European jazz in the 20's syncopates rather than swings. Theis understands this and his players find an ideal balance between the unbuttoned good humour of this music and the slightly placed sense of syncopation. The CPO engineers have done an excellent job too defining the two groups. In essence the jazz-band are placed over to the right of the sound-picture. Within that the solo violin has been given a slightly 'mechanical' tone. To my ear it sounds as if the violin has been amplified and then recorded from the loudspeaker. Its a neat but wholly effective touch. Great playing from the uncredited violinist too who finds a perfect balance between a sleazy schmaltz and characterful playing. Künneke was by no means the first to try and integrate elements of jazz into European Art music - seminal scores such as Milhaud's La création du monde, Krenek's Jonny spielt auf and Martinu's La revue de la cuisine or Le Jazz amongst many others pre-date it. Listen to the rather queasy saxophones - distinctly European not American who have the bustling dead-pan humour of the style to perfection. The contrast with the languorous chromatic string lines of the orchestra is brilliantly conveyed and when those same lines pass to the solo jazz violinist, all smears and slides and a wide vibrato the sense of period perfection is complete. The second movement 'Blues' is bleary-eyed, one-for-the-road faded glamour - another great solo violin contribution before the saxes inject a last burst of tangoing energy into the dawn. The Intermezzo bustles with a little-disguised homage to the Gershwin Piano Concerto. This is followed by a Valse Mélancholique which is the closest the work gets to Künneke's more familiar operetta territory although there are echoes of Nedbal's Valse Triste too. Again, Theis is very skilled indeed at pitching the mood of this to perfection - not overly sentimental - another lovely violin solo but this time from the 'straight' side of the ensemble - but sadly tender. This could pitch over into the indulgently maudlin but Theis plays it to perfection, poignant not pathetic. The jazz reeds lead off the closing Foxtrott - a real theatrical sense of a closing number. Curiously, this has less of a jazz feel and the melodic shape has echoes of some of Eric Coates' or Haydn Wood's orchestral suites - no bad thing in my book. Alert incisive playing from all departments of the excellent orchestra ensures the work drives to a rousing ending - briefly reminiscing the previous movements along the way adding a hyper-active xylophone and some really tricky string writing. Just possibly the finale slightly outstays its welcome but what a fun piece. I could imagine it being effectively used as a ballet is the right narrative could be added.
If disc one focuses on 'known' composers even if in unfamiliar musical surroundings, disc two has music by a couple of composers even less well-known - to me at least. The disc is framed by two performances of Mischa Spoliansky's Charleston Caprice. The second version - not referred to in the liner at all - seems to be a shortened "concert version" by the conductor Ernst Theis. The original version which opens the disc is about half as long again and one assumes requires an orchestral line-up that might hinder its opportunities to be played. This original version was considered lost until 2009 when research for this project led to the score manuscript resurfacing. Spoliansky was a leading light composer in Berlin and as such this is perhaps the most overtly 'light' composition created for these radio broadcasts. Another absolute hit and great fun and the piece that tries to recreate jazz for a symphonic ensemble in its most undiluted/unaltered form. I love the boozy trombone solo that leads off around 1:40 - wittily executed here.
Max Butting is a composer I had not encountered before. From the writings that are included in the liner it is clear that he was one of the driving forces behind the spirit and manifesto of these radio compositions - it is Butting who analysed musically and technically what would 'work' best for the new medium. The two works presented here are subtitled Radio Music. His Op.37 is the intriguingly entitled Sinfonietta with banjo. The liner points out that the inclusion of the banjo in the title has more to do with marketing than musical choices. The banjo is audibly present throughout but simply supports the harmony and gives a little rhythmic impetus. More tellingly in the orchestration is the absence of double basses but the inclusion of three bassoons. This choice is wholly to do with the broadcast medium and does give the work a specific sound. Butting's background in the early 1920s was politically and artistically avant-garde. He joined groups with social-revolutionary leanings so no surprise that a central tenet of his compositions was that music should be intelligible to all. Also, no surprise given this ideology that post World War II he became a leading musical figure in East Germany. The Sinfonietta recorded here is in three balanced movements and on the light-serious continuum that pre-occupies this set sits closest to the serious end. It is an emotionally distanced work - more concerned with textures and instrumental interaction. I particularly like his use of saxophones again - but as an instrumental timbre in its own right with no jazz implications at all. This occupies a similar aesthetic world to much Hindemith from the same time. I have never found the latter to be dry unless one finds the absence of overt emotion in music to be so. This is purely abstract but beautifully crafted music with an interest in contrapuntal writing and piquant harmony. The central adagio is particularly impressive - a slowly unfurling sombre narrative with the melodic line shared around the instrumental group. Again all credit to the playing and conducting here - the pace of the music seems ideally judged and the playing has real light and shade - much more than must have ever made it across the 1930's airwaves. Although not indicated as such there is a sense of a passacaglia-type harmonic repetition here underlying the overall structure. The closing allegro vivace makes an ideal counterpart - the echoes here are more Parisian with Honegger at his most mechanistic springing to mind.
Balancing the abstract nature of his Op.37, Butting's next work Op.38 is his Radio Music No.2 "Cheerful Suite". The liner quotes an autobiographical note where Butting used this work to overcome a period of artistic questioning and emotional despair. This five movement suite is another delightful find. The opening Ouverture has echoes of Shostakovich in his slippery sardonic vein while the 4th movement Tanz is as close to the Threepenny Opera world of Kurt Weill as anything else in the set. This is a really entertaining tango led by an edgy viola then suitably sensuous violin. The closing Finale finds a ideal balance between the high-spirited and something a little darker. Indeed, in many ways this is the work in this set that most perfectly embodies the ideals that I guess lay behind the concept of these Radio compositions; accessible yet challenging, interesting but also entertaining, 'proper' music without being elitist.
Walter Braunfels is another composer known to me through works recorded for Decca's Entartete Musik series. The Divertimento presented here is another work presumed to have been lost but discovered in the Vienna archives of Braunfels' publisher Universal. Given the destruction of many scores by Jewish composers the survival of his handwritten score is all the more remarkable. Central to Braunfels score is again the saxophone but he considered it vital that it should be played vibrato-free. This he felt was the characteristic of the instrument emphasised in jazz performances that distorted/compartmentalised one's appreciation of it as an instrumental timbre of considerable interest. The second movement is a very skilfully written Divertimento that slips in and out of waltz time with fluid wit - only on reflection does the listener realise just how complex the metrical changes have been. The third movement has the feel of a lyrical song led initially by the wind before this passes to the massed violins. This is very expressive writing indeed but is avoids lapsing into obvious sentiment by the astringent harmonies that support the melodies and the halting accompaniment that prevents any sense of the predictable or foursquare. That being said it reaches a powerful climax. The penultimate movement is a Sarabande and features a beautifully reflective horn solo. Indeed, the required level of execution makes it clear that the players in the Radio ensembles in the late 1920s in Germany must have been of a very high calibre - this is demanding writing both technically and musically. Beautifully executed here it now goes without saying. As is the bustling closing Sehr Lebhaft - fully of tricky turns and unexpected side-slips for the violins especially. Conductor Theis sums it up in the liner; "the ability to obtain a maximum with a minimum of means.... each of the short movements has a unique and inimitable character while remaining part of the larger whole."
This set is the bringing together of a multi-year project to restore these works and the genre of music they represent. That being the case we have a variety of venues, engineers and producers with only conductor and orchestra the ever-presents. That being said, the quality of the technical presentation is very very good indeed. The sound is often quite close - never overbearingly so - but this strikes me as perfect for this style of music. The balance between acoustic warmth and textural clarity as near ideal to my ears as makes no difference.
The quality of the orchestral playing cannot be praised too highly both technically and aesthetically. When the music needs to swing it does, when it needs clarity and articulation it has it. All solos from all instrumental departments are played with great skill and personality. I must admit to never having heard either conductor or orchestra before. One imagines orchestral life in Dresden is rather dominated by the Staatskapelle. Be that as it may - this Staatsoperette orchestra are excellent. The CPO liner is possibly the best of theirs I have ever read. There are 50 pages of close typed text in German and English only covering very extensive articles about the music, the composers and the all important ideology behind the concept of Radio Music. Added to that a large number of pictures of the protagonists, advertisements and period 'session' photographs. The only sorrow is the pictures are captioned in German alone. Some of these photographs are very poignant since they capture the spirit of an ideal-fuelled age soon to be swept away. All this is topped off by a suitably decadent thoroughly appropriate Marcellus Schiffer cover painting.
Nowhere in the set does it says which or how many of these works are receiving premiere/modern recordings. Certainly the Schreker at least has been recorded elsewhere and a vintage performance of the Künneke can be found on YouTube but this is remains a unique and compelling collection. CPO produce many discs of great interest and worth - perhaps this is one of their finest and most important yet. A hugely valuable addition to the discography of music in the Weimar Republic.
By the way, this set is labelled 'Edition RadioMusiken Vol.2'. If you were wondering about Vol. 1 it is to be found on CPO 777 541-2 issued in 2008. It too comprises two CDs and features the music of Edmund Nick (1891-1974).
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