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Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Humanity) Austrian War Songs and Literary Statements from the Early Days of World War I
Robert STOLZ (1880˗1975)
Der Honvedhusar, Op. 185 [4:26]
Carl Michael ZIEHRER (1843˗1922)
Kommt heran! (Kriegslied) [2:32]
Emil HOCHREITER (1872˗1938)
In Gottes Namen, Op. 39/1; Neuösterreichs Bluttaufe, Op. 40/1; Unser Kaiser im Gebet, Op. 41/3; Tod in Ähren, Op. 41/5; Österreichisches Reiterlied, Op. 41/4; Reiterlied, Op. 40/5 (all from Kriegslieder 1914˗1915) [18:14]
Paul JUON (1872˗1940)
Österreichisches Reiterlied [3:37]
Franz LEHÁR (1870˗1948)
Reiterlied 1914 [2:30]
Ralph BENATZKY (1884˗1957)
Draußen in Schönbrunn [4:40]
Karl KRAUS (1874˗1936)
Excerpts from Die Fackel (spoken) [25:57]
Csongor Szántó (baritone)
Karin Wagner (piano)
Franz Schuh (speaker)
rec. Studio Weinberg, Kefermarkt, Upper Austria, July 2015
GRAMOLA 99116 [62:06]

“I want to and I must go to war. It’s unbearable. This massive battle. Dear God, please let us be victorious”. Thus wrote none other than Anton Webern to Alban Berg in September 1914 – a quotation which Christian Glanz’s booklet note tellingly places alongside an appallingly xenophobic utterance by Schoenberg (to Alma Mahler) from the previous month, in which he denounces “foreign music” as “shallow, empty, abhorrent, sugary, dishonest and untalented”. If such musical radicals as these were caught up in the patriotic frenzy that accompanied the beginning of World War I, then really it should come as no surprise that their enthusiasm was shared by the essentially establishment-friendly composers of Viennese operetta and dance music. Nevertheless one is taken aback to see the likes of Ziehrer, Lehár, Stolz or Benatzky – familiar names whom we associate with undemanding, perhaps (pace Schoenberg) slightly sugary, but ravishingly beautiful and largely apolitical music ˗ appearing on this disc in the unfamiliar guise of propagandists for the Central Powers. It’s somehow uncomfortable, for example, to come across Ziehrer’s setting of words praising Emperors Franz-Joseph I and Wilhelm II as paragons of peace, dragged unwillingly into war by Allied Powers, filled with hatred, envy and rapacity; or to encounter a toothsome cabaret-style song in waltz time by Benatzky – complete with whistling interlude – whose sole purpose was plainly to popularize the personality cult, surrounding the Austro-Hungarian Emperor.

The truth is, of course, that in 1914 at least some of these composers were no doubt genuinely enthused by the prospect of a just ‘war to end all wars’ ˗ Lehár, for example, came from a dyed-in-the-wool military family with attitudes to match, and Stolz soon enlisted for active service ˗ whereas others will have seen the many commercial possibilities of jumping on so lucrative a bandwagon. Glanz’s note informs us that “the war songs of 1914 were published in a very attractive and costly style, which was normally used for the current hits from the repertoires of operetta and Wienerlied” and that they generally appeared in “well-established series” under the aegis of major publishers. So there was serious money to be made.

Given such a context, it is perhaps not surprising that the bulk of the settings here are of words by journeyman poets, whose names are hardly known today: figures like Kurt Robitschek, Adolf Makovec, Harry Sheff or Fritz Grünbaum (who was later to die at Dachau). Most of their work is pretty undistinguished. Arguably on a slightly higher plane are Detlev von Liliencron’s late nineteenth-century poem ‘Tod in Ähren’ (‘Death in a Cornfield’), mourning the lonely demise of a nameless soldier, or indeed Gerhart Hauptmann’s surprisingly jingoistic and militaristic ‘Reiterlied’ (‘Cavalry Song’), which aims vituperative barbs specifically at the French, English and Russians.

These last two poems are recorded in settings by the almost completely unknown half-Slovenian composer Emil Hochreiter, whose obscurity is such that Wikipedia devotes no article at all to him in English, and only eight lines in German. Nevertheless the six excerpts from his Kriegslieder 1914˗1915 are in many ways the most interesting items on the disc. This is true especially of the three songs from Op. 41, which have a somewhat more differentiated and reflective subject-matter than most, and which draw from Hochreiter music that seems as much rooted in sophisticated modernity as in the Viennese popular traditions that underpin most of the disc. This quality is to be heard not least in his eloquent accompaniments, which make distinctively wide use both of the chromatic scale and of the pianist’s left hand.

That pianist is the excellent Karin Wagner, whose contribution to the success of the disc is a major one. As, of course, is that of her singer, the young Viennese baritone Csongor Szántó, who can have been no more than 27 at the time of the recording. His is not an outstandingly beautiful or imposing voice; not helped by rather close miking, his timbre sounds on the dry side, and his tone is not consistently even. Quite a dark, virile-sounding bottom half of the voice is combined sometimes uncomfortably with a top that sounds at times sensitively sweet and at times a bit strained. As an interpreter, though, Szántó is excellent; aided by absolutely impeccable diction, he invests these songs with as much meaning as they can bear, and never allows himself, as he easily might, to wallow in their intrinsic sentimentality. Songs like these have, up to a point, to be presented ‘straight’, and Szántó plainly understands that very well.

In many ways, then, this is not only a highly unusual issue, but also a fascinating and distinguished one (and it has splendid artwork, featuring a fine reproduction of Albin Egger-Lienz’s 1916 painting Den Namenlosen 1914). Regrettably, however, I must enter a couple of caveats. The first is that the disc contains only around 36 minutes of music, a good quarter of which are devoted to three settings of the same poem, the rather poignant ‘Österreichisches Reiterlied’ by Hugo Zuckermann, who was himself killed in action in 1915. The remainder of the disc is devoted to readings of three anti-war pieces, also from 1914˗15, by the journalist and intellectual Karl Kraus. These contain some fine satire, offer some useful political balance, and are well delivered by Franz Schuh; but one wonders whether even native German-speakers will want to hear nearly half-an-hour of spoken text every time they play the disc. For others, meanwhile, the inclusion of the Kraus excerpts may well prove still more frustrating: the booklet note says nothing about them and almost nothing about their author; no texts are provided, either in German or in translation. Indeed, we are not even told that the anthology’s title, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, is taken from that of a monumental anti-war play, in whose composition Kraus was engaged pretty much throughout the War.

My second caveat is again a linguistic one, namely that there are no translations of the song lyrics either (the German texts are there, but in truth are not always needed, so clear is Szántó’s diction). The absence of translations is arguably a significant own-goal on Gramola’s part, given that the whole point of the disc is grounded in the specific nature of the poems’ subject-matter and that, in the vast majority of cases, no translations of them are available elsewhere. One hopes very much that practical issues such as these will not restrict sales of this illuminating disc exclusively to advanced or native German-speakers; but surely Gramola themselves could have done more to avert this danger.

Nigel Harris

 

 




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