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Eva Resch (soprano) Eric Schneider (piano)
rec. 2018, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany
Sung texts with English translations included GENUIN GEN19644 [62:14]
“In the biblical sense, Eden refers to a paradise, a garden of bliss. But it is a lost paradise, a place of longing, sometimes also a pleasure garden full of forbidden fruits, as Stefan George presented it in his cycle of poems Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens). Here he described it as ‘reflections of a soul that has temporarily fled to other times and places and cradled itself there’. Viktor Ullmann, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Franz Schreker each gave these ‘soul reflections’ their own individual character. What emerged were four song cycles full of deep devotion, intense passion, love and desire, passing away and renewal.” Thus music dramaturge Katja Pfeifer opens the interview with Eva Resch and Eric Schneider in the booklet for this issue, where the two artists develop their views on the music and the poetry in this programme. All the music was written during the first third of the 20th century, i. e. before WW2 – Viktor Ullmann’s love songs only just before, in 1939 in Prague. The composer was three years later interned in the concentration camp Theresienstadt and later brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was murdered in the gas chambers on 18 October 1944.
Though early influenced by Schönberg’s atonal period he later developed a personal style which, at least in this song cycle, has a distinct melodious appeal. Apart from the third song with the telling title Sturmlied (Song of the storm), the remainder are rather low-voiced. Am Klavier (tr. 2) in ¾-time looks back to bygone days: Vergangene Zeit, traurige, schöne, silbern Meer (Time gone by, sad, beautiful, silvery sea). There is a delightful beauty, both in words and music. But this atmosphere is abruptly scattered by the violent cascades of storm in the following song. O Brausen des Meers und Stimme des Sturms (Oh, roaring of the sea and voice of the storm) shouts the soprano and the pianist attacks his instrument with ferocious intensity. But the storm dies down and in the next song everything is harmony: Wenn je ein Schönes mir zu bilden glückte, war’s, weil ich hingegeben deinem Wesen, mit meiner Seele mich in dich verzückte (If I ever made anything beautiful, it was because I abandoned myself to your being, delighted with all my soul in you). And the final song is soft and calm and, as Eric Schneider says in his comment “this moment of calm is at the same time the climax of the song cycle, which, significantly, culminates with the word ‘music’”. The real culmination is however allotted to the piano, which grows and grows to ecstatic heights and eventually dies away.
After this open-eyed ecstasy Schönberg’s sexless atonality feels hopelessly distanced from Stefan George’s beautiful and evocative poems. Occasionally there are melodious fragments in the vocal part, but primarily it is a recitative, skilfully executed by Eva Resch and fascinating in combination with the piano accompaniment but, to my ears at least, lacking the flavours that make George’s poetry so eminently readable. At least this was my first reaction when encountering this work many years ago. I wasn’t prepared for this break against established norms. And close to 110 years ago, when the music was first heard in Vienna, the reactions were probably even stronger. But Schönberg himself was very satisfied with what he had achieved. In the programme notes for the premiere he wrote: “With the George lieder I have for the first time succeeded in approaching an ideal of expression and form which has been in my mind for years. Until now, I lacked the strength and confidence to make it a reality. But now that I have set out along this path once and for all, I am conscious of having broken through every restriction of a bygone aesthetic.” And it was certainly the greatest revolution in Western music for several hundred years, but it took time for the general public to adjust to it and, honestly, even 110 years later it hasn’t been taken to the hearts of the majority of concert goers. That atonalism has been embraced by three maybe four generations of composers doesn’t imply that the amateur listeners say ‘hallelujah’ and for the last few decades even once radical composers turn their backs to atonality. So was Schönberg’s principle a cul-de-sac? Certainly not, it have opened up new possibilities, new ways, but the rigid dogmatism seems to be a closed chapter. Listening today to Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, I still miss the atmosphere I in vain hoped for all those years ago, but I appreciate the honesty of the enterprise and the almost nervous eagerness that carries the work forward. Fifteen brief songs, half of which are less than two minutes, reduce George’s marathon to a comfortable middle-distance run.
With Anton Webern there is never a risk for long-windedness. Katja names it “aphoristic brevity”, a concentration of means where the end-result is so lapidary, not a note too many, silences more important than sounds. The words are also here Stefan George’s and the theme is separation, with the central third song culminating in an embrace – in the music illustrated by a wide leap in the vocal part: a minor ninth downwards. Eric Schneider sees this as the last embrace! The remaining two songs take place “in the hereafter”. The five songs are distilled down to nine minutes, and they are deeply touching.
Franz Schreker’s two songs are settings of Hans Reisiger’s German translations of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But they are abbreviated and rearranged by the composer, who also wanted the second song to “immediately follow upon the preceding” one. Schreker’s idiom is basically easier to digest than the Schönberg/Webern idiom, being more impressionist and more recessed, and there are long stretches of melodious phrases. Also the tessitura is more demanding than in any of the other songs, requiring a high coloratura soprano. This certainly contributes to a feeling of joy, of zest for life. One leaves this recital with a positive smile.
Eva Resch and Eric Schneider have obviously spent a long time penetrating these songs, the texts as well as the music, and they want us to play a part in the performance, to be guided by them. This they managed very well. It wasn’t an easy ride but their wholehearted involvement was a great help. Eva Resch’s voice isn’t intrinsically beautiful, the tone can be shrill and penetrating – but her enunciation is excellent, she is expressive with words and she can sing wonderful pianissimos. Eric Schneider takes care of the intricate piano parts with great confidence.
As I intimated above, this is not music that opens up at the first hearing, but all four cycles have a lot to offer the patient listener, and Eva Resch and Eric Schneider are excellent guides.
Contents Viktor ULLMANN (1898 – 1944)
Five Love Songs after Ricarda Huch, Op. 26 (1939)
1. Wo hast du all die Schönheit hergenommen [1:49]
2. Am Klavier [2:53]
3. Sturmlied [1:46]
4. Wenn je ein Schönes mir zu bilden glückte [2:08]
5. O schöne Hand [4:00] Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874 – 1951)
from “Das Buch der hängenden Gärten“ by Stefan George, Op. 15 (1908-09)
6. Unterm Schutz von dichten Blättergründen [2:14]
7. Hain in diesem Paradiesen [1:21]
8. Als Neuling trat ich ein in dein Gehege [1:23]
9. Da meine Lippen reglos sind und brennen [1:20]
10. Saget mir, auf welchem Pfade [1:04]
11. Jedem Werke bin ich fürder tot [1:05]
12. Angst und Hoffen wechselnd mich beklemmen [0:54]
13. Wenn ich nicht deinen Leib berühre [0:50]
14. Streng ist uns das Glück und spröde [1:25]
15. Das schöne Beet betracht ich mir im Harren [2:12]
16. Als wir hinter dem beblümten Tore [2:53]
17. Wenn sich bei heilger Ruh in tiefen Matten [1:51]
18. Du lehnst wider eine Silberweide [1:50]
19. Sprich nicht immer von dem Laub [0:41]
20. Wir bevölkerten die abend-düstern Lauben [4:39] Anton WEBERN (1883 – 1945)
Five songs aftern poems by Stefan George, Op. 4 (1908-09)
21. Eingang [3:12]
22. Noch zwingt mich Treue [1:22]
23. Ja Heil und Dank dir [2:12]
24. So ich traurig bin [0:48]
25. Ihr tratet zu dem Herde [1:26] Franz SCHREKER(1878 – 1934)
Two lyrical songs from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1923)
26. Wurzeln und Halme sind dies nur [4:14]
27. Das Gras [10:30]