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Plays And Operas For The Radio
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)
Radio-Ouvertüre Op.11 (1930/31) [9:49 + 9:53]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Sabinchen (1930) [18:15]
Walter GRONOSTAY (1906-1937)
Mord (1929) [12:38]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Berliner Requiem (1928/29) [19:54]
Wilhelm GROSZ (1894-1939)
Bänkel und Balladen (1931) [17:21]
Heinrich SUTERMEISTER (1910-1995)
Jorinde und Joringel (1934) [34:55]
Orchester und Chor der Staatsoperette Dresden / Ernst Theis
Jeanette Oswald (soprano), Elke Kottmair (soprano), Jessica Glatte (soprano), Jens Winkelmann (tenor), Ji Hoon Kim (tenor), Bernd Könnes (tenor), Viet Zorn (tenor), Frank Ernst, Gerd Wiemer (baritone), Marcus Günzel (baritone), Christian Grygas (bass), Herbert Adami (bass), Dagmar Nick (speaker), Fanny Linsmann (child's voice), Wolfgang Schaller (radio singer)
rec. Börse, Coswig, March 2007 (Haas & Weill), Lukaskirche Dresden, August 2009 (Hindemith), Alter Schlachthof Dresden, August 2010 (Grosz & Gronostay), Konzertsaal der Hochschule für Musik "Carl Maria von Weber" Dresden, August 2011 (Sutermeister)
CPO 777 839-2 [2 CDs: 137:02]

The two previous volumes in this excellent mini-series from CPO have been as fascinating as they have been revelatory and the two discs that constitute volume 3 are just as fine. This was a co-production between Deutschlandradio Kultur and the Staatsoperette Dresden producing a series of broadcasts dating back to 2007-2011 but only now available on disc.

I reviewed volume 2 just over two years ago. The music there focussed on "Suites & Overtures for the Radio", this time we are given "Plays and Operas for the Radio". I would refer readers to my earlier review for a more detailed background into this fascinating niche of musical history. In essence the early - idealistic - German broadcasters sought to create a body of work that made a virtue out of the technical limitations of national broadcasting. For music, the composers had a strict remit of what would "work" technically as much as aesthetically. So instrumentation was limited in scale, harmony was to be clear - by no means simple but avoiding the soupy extremes of late Romanticism - and counterpoint again with the need to emphasise clarity over complexity. The fascination is how composers turned this to their advantage and produced musical works that were very much of their time, blurring the boundaries between popular and 'high' Art. Even from this simple outline it is easy to imagine why composers such as Hindemith, Haas and Weill would be attracted to the genre both artistically and socio-politically. This is music for the masses in the truest sense. The tragedy, being able to look back from the standpoint of the 21st Century, is how quickly the cultural ideals of the late 1920’s were subverted by the rise of the Nazis - with Hindemith, Weill and Wilhelm Grosz leaving Germany before the War and Pavel Haas tragically losing his life at Auschwitz. Interestingly, another composer represented here took another path, Walter Gronostay was collaborating on Leni Riefenstahl's 1938 documentary Olympia before his unexpected death at the age of 31.

A particular value for me is the way this series can be seen as a kind of appendix to the enduring excellence of Decca's Entarte Musik series - now more than 20 years old [hard to imagine the current Decca management even contemplating such a remarkable series]. Although wide-ranging, many of the flagship releases for Decca were substantial symphonic or operatic works - music with quite a different agenda from the Radio Music offered here. Additionally, I find it fascinating how the music on this new set provides a kind of cultural missing link; there are clear references to the popular musical vocabulary of Weimar Republic from Jazz to the Comedian harmonists and more than one pre-echo of the type of music Orff would produce especially in his quirky operas Die Kluge and Der Mond.
The discs are bookended by a pair of performance of Haas’ Radio-Ouvertüre which is quite literally an overture in celebration of Radio. A vocal quartet sing their praises; “I am the microphone, tender and sensitive like the human soul, I imbibe and swallow the sounding waves.....” both in the German text that opens disc 1 and the Czech version that closes disc 2. Oddly, the liner and the CD case reverses the linguistic versions - musically they are identical. As with the earlier volumes, both the performers and the engineers have hit on a perfect recreation of the kind of sound this music needs. The ensemble is closely recorded, the playing clean, lucid and virtuosic. Ernst Theis’ interpretations are hugely idiomatic while retaining just the right amount of emotional detachment. Likewise, all of the soloists who feature on these predominantly vocal discs have voices ideally suited to the idiom, characterful and clear but with much greater tonal lustre than I expect original listeners in the 1920’s were able to discern across the airwaves. An idea of the technical struggles involved here is the inclusion of an archive extract from the 1930 broadcast of Hindemith’s Sabinchen - the sound quality is spectacularly poor but through the audio blizzard one can just about make out the way in which the excellent new version recorded here stays true to the original broadcast. The liner makes clear the care with which the current version was recreated from limited extant performance material since the work had been all but forgotten since its original broadcast.

Aside from Weill’s Berliner Requiem all of the repertoire here was unfamiliar to me. There are subtle differences in how the works are titled; the Hindemith is a ‘Radio Play’, Gronostay’s Mord [Murder] is an ‘Audio Play’ - echoes of Under Milk Wood perhaps - while Sutermeister's Jorinde und Joringel is a ‘Radio Opera’. Sabinchen is a remarkably condensed work running to just eighteen minutes but packing in a lot of musical and dramatic events. My main sorrow regarding this set is the complete absence of any libretti or even a detailed synopsis. The clarity of the text is superb - only my lack of German is to blame. I imagine the main market for these discs is the German-speaking one, given their radio broadcast origins, but it is a shame that music and presentation of this quality might not receive the acclaim it deserves through the lack of some texts. The production of these performances is first rate too with a wide sound-stage allowing the ‘movement’ of characters and effects such as a steam train - Villa-Lobos-worthy in its witty recreation adding to the sense of drama.

Most of these works deliberately blur the boundaries between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ music with popular songs and jazz-derived rhythms rubbing shoulders with much more consciously demanding passages. Gronostay’s Mord is something of a find - he was just 23 years old when he wrote it and again it is packed with incident - his developing involvement with cinema and the illustrating of visual material is easy to understand hearing this work. Given Weill’s political leanings it is no real surprise to see him contributing to this genre of music. His Berliner Requiem, to a text by Brecht, is a rather dark and often bitter work in the context of the spirit of ‘entertainment’ that inhabits much of the rest of the programme. But even here the populist influence of the Comedian Harmonists is clear. Weill was able to produce this slightly queezy, oddly glum sound world which somehow has become the enduring musical signature for this period of German Art and in this work he achieves one of its finest expressions. There are other recordings of this work and I am not in a position to express an opinion on the relative quality of this performance over any other. Enough to say I found it compelling from start to end.

The second disc includes the Viennese composer Wilhelm Grosz’s Bänkel und Balladen. Again the fascination is how Grosz shares with say Weill a general aesthetic but with Grosz at the more populist/cabaret-feel end of the spectrum. This is reflected in his instrumental group which includes saxophone, sousaphone, banjo, accordion, piano and percussion. Grosz’s music suffered neglect at the hands of the Nazis and ultimately he fled Germany for England in 1934. His Afrika Songs featured in the Decca series and his enduring legacy is his overtly popular songs including Red Sails in the Sunset. The performances here again are model of idiomatic aptness - try the second track Bankel vom Klatsch to see what I mean.

The single longest work on this pair of discs is Heinrich Sutermeister’s opera Jorinde und Joringel. The Swiss Sutermeister was just 24 years old when he wrote the work - an adaption of the Brothers Grimm fairytale. Another example of the care taken with these productions is the allocation of the speaking/narrator’s role to Dagmar Nick - she is the second child of the composer/conductor Edmund Nick whose role in this entire project back in the 20’s was vital - volume 1 of the series was devoted to Nick’s opera Leben in dieser zeit. Sutermeister uses the largest instrumental grouping and produces a work that is the most overtly ‘serious’. The performance here is again wholly idiomatic and sensitive and achieves musical and dramatic shadings and nuances that you imagine the original performance with all its audio limitations could only dream of. Jorinde's Lied [CD2 track 9] is an example of this - really beautifully expressive playing from the solo flute and excellent solo singing by Jessica Glatte, with the chorus layered effectively into the background. The greatest praise one can give all the unfamiliar music by unfamiliar composers presented here is that in every case it makes me wish to seek out more of their work.

Completing the excellence of this set - missing libretti aside - is the booklet, lavishly illustrated with archive drawings, photographs and illustrations and fascinating articles explaining the origin of the genre as well as individual works. In the past, CPO have managed to have some of the most convoluted and opaque booklets on the market, but this one is excellent in every respect. The essays are in German and English only - the German text considerably longer than the English - and again it is a shame that the illustrations/photographs do not include an English translation in explanation. The true stars of this set are the music and the performers - volume 2 made it onto my 2015 list of discs of the year, I would be surprised if this current volume does not feature in my choices this year too.

Nick Barnard



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