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Eisler orchestral C5434
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Hanns EISLER (1898-1962)
Couplets & Ballads
Orchestral Suites 2-4
Die letzte Nacht
Wolfram Berger (narrator)
Marino Formenti, Adolf Henning (piano)
Klangforum Wien, Ensemble die reihe/HK Gruber
rec. 12 December 1996, Vienna Konzerthaus & 24 October 1999, Musikverein
CAPRICCIO C5434 [66:30 + 60:42]

Hanns Eisler remains one of the almost forgotten figures of 20th century music. Every so often his music is heard in concerts of the Twenties and Thirties Berlin cabaret concerts, but it has been more likely to appear at festivals. I recall a very fine song recital at the Edinburgh International Festival a number of years ago, but more often his music has featured in European venues and festivals celebrating the Entartete Music forbidden during the Third Reich. Recordings are not so easy to find, so this new issue by Capriccio is a welcome addition to the discography of this foremost Schoenberg pupil. Of course, the problem with Eisler’s music is not the music itself, but with his political and racial background. He suffered from the Third Reich during his early maturity as a composer, and was victimised by McCarthyism in the 1940s when he was deported from the USA. He spent his last years as the leading composer in the GDR and Vienna.

Born in Leipzig into an enlightened family known as the ‘Bildungsbürger’ class, his father was a philosopher and a great influence in his engagement with the arts and particularly with music. His brothers were politically very active; however, he decided to be a composer. His participation at the front line in the First World War was another major influence in his life. Many of his songs are not only anti-war but bitterly opposed to the corruption and abuses of the Habsburg empire. He studied with Schoenberg in Berlin; however, he developed his own views rather than composing in an ‘ivory tower’, writing Music for Workers and developing collaborations with Brecht and other socialist writers. Early on, Eisler enjoyed a contract with Universal publishers, and won an award from the City of Vienna.

I first came across Eisler’s music on a brief trip across Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin in 1971 when I picked up an Eterna LP of his orchestral suites, which only whetted my appetite for more of his music. His music has a deceptive simplicity which makes it very accessible, yet within his songs there are abrupt switches in tempo and concept. This two-CD set offers a fine introduction to his music, and hopefully listeners will search for more of his creativity on record.

The very first piece, The Ballad of the Cripples’ Brigade, epitomises his inspiration: ‘We’re the cripples’ brigade, the most wonderful brigade in the world; we number nearly a billion assuming you’re counting the dead…’ Eisler’s music seems to catch all the irony and sarcasm of the texts, and the bitterness of his years in the trenches during the Great War. The Tears of the House of Hohenzollern of 1959 lacks the same emotions, but everything is in Tucholsky’s lyrics. A 1930 song, The Ballad of Negro Jim, based again on David Weber’s texts, is another fine example of his creativity. ‘When Nigger Jim stepped the tram/A faulty ticket got him in a jam/On his way to Manhattan, The gentlemen united in a shout: Beat it and get out!’ Other songs such as Welfare Song, represent his hatred of the poverty of the 1920s and 30s, and The SA-Man’s Song and The Ballad of the Water Wheel were based on Brecht’s lyrics and performed by his great interpreter for many years, Ernst Busch. Palmström is Eisler’s response to Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, subtitled ‘Studies on tone rows’ where he challenges his teacher’s teachings. The five songs of this opus are parodies taken from Christian Morgenstern’s poems.

The second CD contains three orchestral suites and his music for The Last Night which is based on Karl Kraus’ stage work ‘Event of the Experimental Stage’ in 1930 in the form of a melodrama, illustrating rather than carrying the events on stage, with attempts to commentate, or interpret the events. His scoring is economical in that it uses only two clarinets, two trumpets, trombone, percussion and piano, with the music being an accessory to the words, emphasised by sections for a narrator. The orchestral suites recycle music from several film scores; the Second Suite uses music from the anti-war film Niemandsland; however, the second movement is a Capriccio on Jewish Folk Songs, while the fourth movement reprises a left-wing protest song Der heimliche Aufmarsch. The Third Suite salvages music written for a film about the Great Depression Kuhle Kampe, and ends with one of his most popular protest songs based on Brecht’s The Solidarity Song. Eisler visited the Soviet Union, and collaborated with Joris Ivens on a documentary film The Hero’s Song made in Berlin and Moscow in 1932. Magnita Komsomol Song, and March of the Youth who has the Floor are highlights in this socialist realist piece. Throughout all his scores, Eisler’s Orchestral Suites use a minimal orchestral chamber ensemble.

The final piece, Die letzte Nacht, is based on Eisler’s ‘Event of the Experimental Stage’ which premiered at midnight on 15 January 1930 and in which his incidental music uses the epilogue of Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind for narrators and chamber orchestra. The sections include a War Correspondent, March of the Hussars, Hyenas, Press Ball, Downfall and a Couplet of Novotny of Eichensieg for spoken words and piano. The concluding words spoken by the Voice of God (paraphrasing Kaiser Wilhelm’s words ‘I do not want this!’) brings this powerful anti-war work to a memorable close.  The composer, conductor, and chansonnier HK Gruber uses here his own arrangement of this work for achieving the best effect on stage, maximising Eisler’s striking theatre music. These performances are from concerts of 1996 and 1999 in Vienna’s Konzerthaus, and the Musikverein in Austrian Radio broadcasts.

The performances are remastered by Jens Jamin and magnificently performed by the ensembles ‘die reihe’ and the Klangforum Wien with outstanding interpretations by HK Gruber and dramatic narration from Wolfram Berger with admirable keyboard playing from Marino Formenti (Klangforum Wien) and Adolf Henning (Ensemble ‘die reihe’). The two CDs are presented in a cardboard slipcase with an 80-page booklet in English and German text containing lengthy articles on the composer and the music, presented with full translations in both languages, attractive photos of both composers and performers and illustrations of original posters from the 1930s of Eisler’s concerts.

This is another valuable addition to the Eisler discography following three earlier releases by this company of Eisler’s music.

Gregor Tassie

CD 1
Ballade von der Krüppelgarde/The Ballad of the Cripples’ Brigade
Die wienenden Hohenzollern /The Tears of the House of Hohenzollern, Op. 18/1
Wohltatigkeit/Benevolence, Op. 22/2
Ruckkehr zur Natur/Back to Nature
Ballade von den Sackeschmeissern/Ballad of the Sack-Haulers, Op. 22/4
Ideal und Wirklichkeit/Ideal – and Reality
Ballade vom Nigger Jim/The Ballad of Negro Jim, Op. 18/6
Stempelleid/Welfare Song, Op. 28/6
Das Lied vom SA-Mann/The SA Man’s Song
Schweyk in World War II, (Stage music for voice and piano)
No. 14. Bei der Kanone dort/At the Cannon over there
No. 15 Kälbermarsch/The Marched Calves
The Round Heads and the Pointed Heads, Op. 45 (Stage music)
No. 11 Die Ballade vom Wasserrad/Ballad of the Water Wheel
No. 9 Lied von der belebenden Wirkung des Geldes/Song about the invigorating Effect of Money
Höllenangst, (Stage music after Nestroy)
No. 14. Ouvertüre zu einem Lustspiel/Overture to a Comedy
No. 6 Wendelin-Couplet I/My soul, it must go to heaven
No. 16 Aberglauben-Couplet/Superstition
No. 21 Wendelin-Couplet II/From whom should you learn it, our masters
No. 20 Angst-Couplet/Fear
Eulenspiegel or Joke about a Joke, (Stage music)
Couplet, Des is a politscher Herr/A Political Operator
O Fallada, da du hangest/A Horse’s Accusation
Palmström Parodien/Parodies, Op. 5
1.Venus Palmstrom
3.L’art pour l’art
4.Gallows Brother’s Spring Song
5.Couplet of the Well-Flower Print

CD 2
Suite für Orchester Nr. 2 Op. 24 ‘Niemandsland’ 1931
Suite für Orchester Nr. 3 Op. 26 ‘Kuhle Wampe’ 1931/2
Suite für Orchester Nr. 4 Op. 30 ‘Pesn o Geroijach’ 1932
Die letzte Nacht Op. 32/2 (Stage music for an epilogue to The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus)

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