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Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Orchestral Songs - Volume 2
Drei Chinesische Gesänge, Op. 19 (1914)
Romantischer Gesänge, Op. 58 (1918/42)
Die Gott minnende Seele, Op. 53 (1935/36)
Der Tod des Kleopatra, Op. 59 (1944)
Vier Japanische Gesänge, Op. 62 (1944/45)
Camilla Nylund (soprano, opp. 19 & 58)
Genia Kühmeier (soprano, opp. 53 & 59)
Ricarda Merbeth (soprano, op. 62)
Konzerthausorchester Berlin/Hansjörg Albrecht
rec. 16-20 November 2015, Funkhaus, Berlin
Sung texts provided in German only

The Oehms label has quickly followed up its much admired first volume of orchestral songs by German composer Walter Braunfels (review) with a second volume containing seventeen orchestral songs all for soprano voice and written between 1914/45.

It might prove useful to draw parallels with the career of Braunfels’ older contemporary Richard Strauss whose fortunes took a very different track. Strauss won international fame in 1888 whilst in his mid-twenties with Don Juan obtaining additional success with several more dazzling tone poems and a number of expressionistic, and frequently shocking, operas. Strauss was able to keep on side with the Nazi Party who appointed him in 1933 as president of the Reichsmusikkammer. Subsequently he was removed from the post but he was tolerated by the Nazis and survived without too much hardship. Up to 1933 Braunfels’s career had progressed extremely well especially with the success of his opera Die Vögel (The Birds) premièred in 1920 at Munich. As Braunfels was half Jewish the rise of the Nazi party in Germany thwarted any chances he had of making further progress in music while placing him in serious peril of his life. He was forced to cease his profession, dismissed from his official roles and having to leave public life, being forced into what Dr. Eva Baur in the booklet essay describes as “internal exile within Germany.”

Evidently in 1923 the year of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch Braunfels had personally encountered Hitler, refusing to write him an anthem for the Brownshirts. Braunfels’s music was virtually forgotten whereas the music of Strauss hardly suffered under Nazi rule and has flourished internationally ever since.

In the last couple of decades or so Braunfels has risen out of the pack of unjustly neglected composers and his music is gaining a wider circulation underlined by the increasing number of recordings of his output. The breakthrough was the release of the 1996 studio recording of Die Vogel (The Birds) on Decca that created considerable interest together with a number of revivals of the opera most notably a 2009 staging from Los Angeles Opera filmed on DVD/Blu-ray on Arthaus Musik.

Presented on the release in chronological order, the first set of songs is the Drei Chinesische Gesänge (Three Chinese Songs), Op. 19 from 1914, a product of Braunfels’ early thirties. Here Braunfels uses texts from Die Chinesische Flöte taken from Hans Bethge’s anthology of ancient Chinese poetry. This is the same source that Mahler used for his Das Lied von der Erde. Eva Baur writes that the works reflect the composer’s “longing for faraway places.” Braunfels commenced his five Romantischer Gesänge (Romantic Songs), Op. 58 four years later in 1918. It was a quarter of a century before he completed them. Here the composer uses texts of poems by Clemens Brentano and Joseph von Eichendorff who, of course, were poets favoured by Richard Strauss. Camilla Nylund is the soloist in Drei Chinesische Gesänge and the Romantischer Gesänge. A lyric-dramatic soprano, Nylund is a quality performer in her prime, who I have seen in Dresden concert performances on two occasions. Her large, strong dramatic voice moves markedly from tenderness to high drama even if at times it can seem a touch unwieldy and could benefit from additional colour. The atmospheric nature of these two song cycles is striking, and not surprisingly reminds me of the perfumed sound worlds of Richard Strauss and Mahler, especially Das Lied von der Erde in the Drei Chinesische Gesänge.

Composed in 1935/36 the set of four songs Die Gott minnende Seele (The God-Loving Soul), Op. 53 is based on poems by Mechthild of Magdeburg the Christian medieval mystic. Eva Baur asserts that “this work occupies a special position amongst the orchestral Lieder of Braunfels”. Genia Kühmeier, with her bright soprano, is the soloist in Die Gott minnende Seele and is in her element, singing beautifully with a purity demonstrating her security and focus. Assisted by Braunfels’ exquisite chamber-weight orchestration Kühmeier and the Konzerthaus players successfully combine to create a vivid palette of colours.

In 1944 Braunfels turned to Shakespeare for his Der Tod des Cleopatra (The Death of Cleopatra), Op. 59. From Antony and Cleopatra he set the scene Gebt mir mein Kleid, setzt mir die Krone auf! (Give me my robe. Put on my crown) Cleopatra’s moving final words creating a work that he greatly admired. Following on soon after the Shakespeare setting in 1944/45 came Vier Japanische Gesänge (Four Japanese Songs), and Op. 62, Von der Liebe süß' und bitter Frucht (Sweet and Bitter Fruit of Love) returning to the texts of poet Hans Bethge, reportedly Braunfels was reportedly somewhat unimpressed by his own endeavours. The third soprano on this release, Ricarda Merbeth is the soloist in both works. In Der Tod des Cleopatra Merbeth acquits herself well, revealing her dramatic soprano with resolute and weighty projection that blends well with the composer’s often exotic sounding orchestration. In truth Merbeth’s conspicuous vibrato is not to my taste. Especially enjoyable is the compelling saxophone part.

Playing marvellously throughout, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, one of the finest ensembles in Germany, provides unyielding support under the assured direction of Hansjörg Albrecht. Recorded at Funkhaus, Berlin, the sound team has provided good clarity. The balance between voice and orchestra for Genia Kühmeier and Ricarda Merbeth is satisfactory but Camilla Nylund feels slightly recessed in the sound picture. The excellent booklet essay A Longing for Longing by Dr. Eva Gesina Baur, is provided in an English translation. Full German texts have been provided in the booket, however, copyright restrictions mean the costs of providing English translations is too prohibitive.

There are wonderful new discoveries from Braunfels in this desirable Oehms release.

Michael Cookson



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