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Première Portrait
Thomas Ebenstein (tenor)
Charles Spencer (piano)
rec. 4tune Studios, Vienna, 2017
CAPRICCIO C3007 [69:16]

Even serious composers sometimes take a day off and let their hair down, creating something entertaining and light-hearted. On this charming disc we encounter four German-speaking composers from the early 20th century in off-day mood. The most surprising, I believe, is probably Arnold Schönberg, the central figure in the New Viennese School, who broke new grounds when introducing atonal music and later developed the twelve-tone technique. But he started out as a late-romantic and he was, for instance, deeply fond of Johann Strauss and arranged several of his waltzes for chamber ensembles and even made an entertaining arrangement of the Italian pop song Funiculi Funiculà. The Brettl-Lieder from 1901 – Brettl is German for cabaret – are performed now and then and there exist several recordings. He wrote eight songs, and seven of them are recorded here, though not in the published order. The missing song, number 3 in the original order, Nachtwandler, was explicitly written for soprano, piccolo, trumpet, side-drum and piano. Gigerlette is perhaps the most popular, but all of them are truly entertaining and not least the high-spirited piano accompaniments are a treat to listen to. My favourite is Seit ich so viele Weiber sah (tr. 7), which in the track-list is called just Aria. Interestingly the text is by Schikaneder, best known today as the librettist to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.

Schönberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky were brothers-in-law and Zemlinsky was also Schönberg’s teacher. His development was similar to Schönberg’s: Wagnerian, Mahlerian and expressionist, but he never followed Schönberg’s path towards atonalism and twelve-tone technique. The two cabaret-songs from the same year as Schönberg’s songs are totally charming. I hadn’t heard them before but now they are high up on my favourite list.

Richard Strauss’s cycle Krämer-Spiegel (The Shopkeeper’s Mirror), composed in 1918 but not published until 1921, is the composer’s rather nasty way to take revenge on some of his backbiters. The texts are full of irony, today incomprehensible and that’s the main reason why they are so seldom heard. Musically they are rather attractive, without reaching the heights of his greatest songs, but Einst kam der Bock als Bote (tr. 11) is a waltz that can be appreciated without bothering about the vitriolic words, and O lieber Künstler sei ermahnt (tr. 15) is idyllically charming. Maybe the best reason to play the cycle is the piano part, which is uncommonly virtuosic. Charles Spencer has a field day here. Listen for instance to his sensitive and expressive playing in Von Händlern wird die Kunst bedroht [tr. 17) and even better the postlude to the final song (tr. 21).

The high-spot of the programme is, however, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Songs of the Clown, settings of the jester’s songs in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They were the result of his cooperation with director Max Reinhardt for a Shakespeare production in Los Angeles in 1937. These texts have been set many times and I have many favourites, but Korngold is here at his most inspired. Come Away, Death and O Mistress Mine are among his greatest songs and the other three are on the same level. It is worth mentioning, by the way, that Zemlinsky was not only teacher to Schönberg, also Korngold studied with him.

I have already mentioned Charles Spencer’s playing, as always a model of flexibility. Thomas Ebenstein, was a new name to me, and he won me over at once. Not that his voice is the most beautiful of its kind – his tone is rather hard and penetrating – but he is so expressive, his enunciation is crystal clear and he has a wide supply of nuances, encompassing all the needs of a story-teller. Since 2012 he is a member of the Vienna State Opera, where he sings primarily character roles, like Pedrillo in Die Entführung and David in Die Meistersinger, and from hearing him do the songs on this disc he must be ideal for those roles.

The drawback, as always with this series, is the lack of notes on the music and the sung texts, but readers with a taste for good, entertaining songs performed by a really expressive character singer should enjoy this recital even so.

Göran Forsling

Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874 – 1951)
Brettl-Lieder (1901):
1. Galathea (Wedekind) [2:58]
2. Gigerlette (Bierbaum) [2:08]
3. Der genügsame Liebhaber (Salus) [2:42]
4. Einfältiges Lied (Salus) [2:24]
5. Mahnung (Hochstetter) [3:36]
6. Jedem das seine (Colly) [4:57]
7. Arie aus dem Spiegel von Arcadien (Schikaneder) [3:18]
Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871 – 1942)
Zwei Brettl-Lieder (1901):
8. In der Sonnengasse (Holz) [1:48]
9. Herr Bombardil (Schröder) [1:42]
Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
Krämerspiegel, Op. 66, Zwölf Gesänge nach Alfred Kerr (1921):
10. Es war einmal ein Bock [2:57]
11. Einst kam der Bock als Bote [3:24]
12. Es liebte einst ein Hose [2:08]
13. Drei Masken sah ich am Himmel stehn [2:44]
14. Hast Du ein Tongedicht vollbracht [1:08]
15. O lieber Künstler sei ermahnt [3:08]
16. Unser Feind [1:27]
17. Von Händlern wird die Kunst bedraht [5:24]
18. Es war mal eine Wanze [3:27]
19. Die Künstler sind die Schöpfer [2:08]
20. Die Händler und die Macher [1:19]
21. O Schöpferschwarm, o Händlerkreis [4:09]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897 – 1957)
Songs of the Clown, Op. 27. Nach William Shakespeare (1937):
22. Come Away, Death [2:39]
23. O Mistress Mine [2:16]
24. Adieu, Good Man Devil [0:53]
25. Hey, Robin [0:59]
26. For the Rain, It Raineth Every Day [3:34]



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