Walter BRAUNFELS (1882-1954)
Orchestral Songs - Vol. I
Vorspiel und Prolog der Nachtigall op.30 No. 3 for soprano and orchestra after Aristophanes (from the opera Die Vögel) (1913) [8:16]
Zwei Hölderlin-Gesänge op.27 for baritone and orchestra (1916-18) [15:44]
Auf ein Soldatengrab op.26 for baritone and orchestra (1915) [4:21]
Abschied vom Walde op.30, 1 for tenor and orchestra after Aristophanes (from the opera Die Vögel) (1913) [5:13]
Don Juan op.34 (1924) [34:34]
Valentina Farcas (soprano); Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor); Michael Volle (baritone)
Staatskapelle Weimar/Hansjörg Albrecht
rec. 2015, Redoute Weimar
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 1846 [68:08]
Orchestral Songs - Volume 2
Drei Chinesische Gesänge, Op. 19 (1914) [14:36]
Romantischer Gesänge, Op. 58 (1918/42) [14:57]
Die Gott minnende Seele, Op. 53 (1935/36) [11:51]
Der Tod des Kleopatra, Op. 59 (1944) [9:46]
Vier Japanische Gesänge, Op. 62 (1944/45) [16:44]
Camilla Nylund (soprano, opp. 19 & 58)
Genia Kühmeier (soprano, op. 53)
Ricarda Merbeth (soprano, opp. 59 & 62)
Konzerthausorchester Berlin/Hansjörg Albrecht
rec. 2015, Funkhaus, Berlin
Sung texts provided in German only
OEHMS CLASSICS OC1847 [68:21]
If you glance casually at the track list for Volume 1 of OEHMS’s survey of Braunfels’ orchestral songs you might conclude that excerpts from the opera Die Vögel have been tacked on to fill out the contents. Such is not the case. Eva Gesine Baur points out in her booklet essay that Vorspiel und Prolog der Nachtigall and Abschied vom Walde were conceived as independent pieces in 1913 and were subsequently incorporated into the opera. As its title suggests, the Vorspiel und Prolog der Nachtigall is the music with which Braunfels opened Die Vögel. The bewitching orchestral colours come over very well here and Valentina Farcas makes a fine job of the acrobatic and often very high-lying coloratura. Abschied vom Walde became the closing music of the opera where it’s voiced by the character Hoffegut (Good Hope). The leading Wagner tenor, Klaus Florian Vogt represents luxury casting for this assignment. His flexible yet strong voice is well suited to the music and he sings most expressively. He and the orchestra work together to give a super account of this wonderful music.
The remaining vocal items are entrusted to the excellent Michael Volle. The Zwei Hölderlin-Gesänge were composed while Braunfels was serving in the German army in the Great War, a life-changing experience. The first song, An die Parzen is deeply felt and Volle rises to the occasion with firm-toned, eloquent singing. If anything, Der Tod für’s Vaterland is even more powerful. Volle projects the music dramatically though I admire the quiet inwardness with which he delivers the penultimate stanza. Incidentally, An die Parzen is the only item on either of these discs that can also be found on the Capriccio disc of Braunfels’ lieder with piano accompaniment which was welcomed by my colleague, Paul Corfield Godfrey (review). Indeed, it’s noteworthy that the majority of those piano-accompanied songs pre-date the orchestral songs here recorded by OEHMS. Michael Volle also sings Auf ein Soldatengrab, a Hermann Hesse setting which Braunfels composed at the start of his army service. It’s another imposing and impassioned piece and Volle’s performance is excellent.
The remainder of Volume 1 is taken up by a performance of the orchestral work Don Juan, a set of variations on the ‘Champagne’ aria from Don Giovanni. Frankly, I think Eva Gesine Baur is stretching things a bit too far in her notes in stating that this work “is not an orchestral song in the strict sense, but a song without words, an aria for orchestra.” Why not simply admit that Braunfels didn’t compose enough orchestral songs to fill two CDs so here we have a generous filler? I’m not going to complain about the selection, though. I’ve come across Don Juan before in a recording conducted by Markus L Frank. (review). I’d be cautious about saying that one of these recordings is “better” than the other. What I will say, though, is that when I made some comparisons I had to turn down the volume level when playing the Capriccio disc. I prefer the OEHMS sound and Hansjörg Albrecht leads a fine performance of this attractive and inventive piece.
Volume 2 is devoted entirely to songs for the soprano voice. The works are placed in chronological order on the disc, which I think is sensible. Drei Chinesische Gesänge sets three poems from Hans Bethge’s collection, Chinesische Flöte, the same source as Mahler mined for Das Lied von der Erde. These are considerable songs. ‘Die Einsame’ is gorgeously romantic but the pick of the bunch, I think, is the central song, ‘Ein Jüngling denkt an die Geliebte’, This is gently rapturous and seems to me fully the equal of Richard Strauss, both in terms of its vocal line and its wonderful scoring. I really liked Camilla Nylund’s singing of all three songs.
Miss Nylund is the soloist also in the set of five Romantischer Gesänge. The notes tell us that Braunfels commenced the composition of these songs in 1918 and “began working on [them] once more in 1942”. It’s frustrating that we’re not told to what extent the songs had been completed before Braunfels laid them aside. That’s quite important since his style evolved so much in the intervening years. My overall impression is that the vocal lines in these songs are less refulgent than is the case in the Chinesische Gesänge and that the orchestration is less sumptuous. They’re very interesting songs and Camilla Nylund does them very well.
There’s a very marked change of tone and style for Die Gott minnende Seele (The God-Loving Soul). This comprises settings of four poems by the thirteenth-century mystic, Mechthild von Magdeburg. Here, Braunfels deliberately cultivates a simpler, more pared-down style. I’m not sure what orchestral forces are used but there’s no doubt that they are far less substantial than in the preceding sets of songs. There’s a chamber-like feel to these songs. The intervals in the vocal line seem to be more exploratory in nature and, relative to the other pieces on this CD, these songs have a more ‘modern’ feel. There’s a definite touch of austerity to the writing. I still don’t think I’ve quite found my way into these songs though that’s certainly not the fault of the present performers, particularly the excellent Genia Kühmeier.
The remainder of the programme is entrusted to the dramatic soprano Ricarda Merbeth. First, she sings Der Tod des Kleopatra which is a setting in German of Cleopatra’s final speech in Shakespeare’s play before she commits suicide. We’re told that Braunfels thought of the Egyptian Queen as “a transfigured whore”. He certainly set the text to vivid, dramatic music. Ricarda Merbeth’s singing is tragic and regal and she is wholly committed to the music. One detail that caught my ear was the prominent use of a sinuous saxophone as Cleopatra’s suicide draws near, just before she sings her last few lines.
Braunfels returned to Hans Bethge for Vier Japanische Gesänge. He began work on these settings in 1944 and not long after he’d commenced he learned that his youngest son was missing while on active service on the Eastern Front: his body was never found. Apparently, the composer was dissatisfied with these songs, feeling that he had over-scored them though I wonder if he was being too self-critical. That said, he was much more restrained in his scoring of the third song, ‘Trennung und Klage’ (Separation and mourning) and that works extremely well. The four songs are very interesting indeed. However, I’ve got reservations about the way Ricarda Merbeth sings them. Her delivery is, for the most part, pretty full-on and she deploys a much more generous vibrato than is to my taste. The style is arguably best suited to the last song, which is a big romantic statement, but even here I wonder if an alternative way with the music might be at least as effective. To be truthful, I wish Camilla Nylund had been asked to sing these songs.
That, however, is the sole reservation I have about the performances on either of these discs. I’ve concentrated largely on the singers but both orchestras acquit themselves extremely well and Hansjörg Albrecht is clearly a fine advocate for Braunfels’ music. In both cases the recorded sound is very good. The documentation has some flaws, though. Only the German texts are provided. Given that these are unfamiliar songs – and texts – and that this is an international release I would have thought the provision of English and French translations would have been appropriate. Frankly, I found the notes by Eva Gesine Baur were hard going at times, though this may be due to the translation from German. More seriously, she seems keen to pursue certain biographical themes in her commentary and the notes are often disappointingly thin when it comes to discussing music that will be new to many purchasers of these CDs.
Collectors who have had their interest in Walter Braunfels’ music fired in recent years through various CD releases may like to know that Hansjörg Albrecht has recorded more music by this composer for OEHMS. There’s a disc of recordings made in 2012, all premiere recordings. On OC 411 he conducts the Munich Symphony Orchestra in the over-long and somewhat turgid Concerto for Organ, Boys’ Choir and Orchestra, Op 38 (1927) and the more interesting Symphonic Variations on a French Children’s Song, Op 15 (1909). He also gives a magisterial performance of Braunfels’ only work for solo organ, the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, Op 43 (1933-42)
The present pair of discs contains music that is well worth hearing in perfornmances which, with one reservation – which others may not share – are excellent.
Volume 1: Rob Barnett ~ Michael Cookson
Volume 2: Michael Cookson