While it is politically correct to identify genius among allied servicemen
who died during two world wars any attention paid to those who fell fighting
for the aggressors who lost is considered suspect.
George Butterworth was the archetype of the young officer class British composer
cut down in the Great War slaughter in the trenches of the Somme. Quite properly
his reputation stands secure on the basis of the handful of works he completed.
In a later conflict two German composers who sided with the Nazis included
Von Trapp and Hessenburg. Both reputedly wrote fine music which we do not
hear because of their objectionable political alignment. Yet what has that
to do with their music?
Rudi Stephan died at the age of 28 in the service of the German Imperial
Army in the Galician Eastern front campaign during the Great War.
Stephan's music comes from a world of saturated early 20th century romanticism.
The Magic of Love is a narrative monologue for baritone and orchestra. It
inhabits a world similar to that of Zemlinsky and Schrecker with a touch
of Mahler. His textures are quite luminous and the vocal part is smoothly
curvaceous. A dramatic rictus at 3:10 leads into a dreamy recitative.
Fischer-Dieskau is in good voice, sounding more youthful than his years.
The singer has to switch from singing to speech and back. The lightness of
his serenading suggests that Stephan was influenced by the burgeoning operetta
world of the time as well as by early Schoenberg.
Music for Orchestra floats spectrally in and out of the miasma of a dream.
At 2:48 a more positive, almost heroic and demonstrative interlude bursts
in. The harp cuts a swathe through the strata of sound. The music is somewhat
Straussian but with some of Korngold's epic wash and a grand victorious stride.
The vainglory subsides and we return to the mournful reflection of the opening
but with the enchanter solo violin to spin the silk of this unusual fantasy.
A jolly fugue sets in (11:23) and gallops into a climax of exalted high
ideals in a Romantic Hansonian language with the odd hint of Sibelius. This
is a most intriguing and pleasurable discovery.
After too short a silence the Music for violin and orchestra starts.
This at first muses in a Hollywood haze - part Lark Ascending, part
Finzi Introit, part Delius Violin Concerto. This is intensified in
a display of fireworks which becomes increasingly warm and nostalgic. A rapid
scudding from the violin (reminiscent of Sheherazade) bridges into
calm and back at (10:30) to flights of fancy and again to Korngoldian whooping
horns. Gallic accents are never far away and strangely enough neither is
the Elgar violin concerto! The final 'meltdown' sunset is very Delian.
Finally we move to a surgingly romantic two-movement chamber work. The movements
are of unequal length with a sprawling quarter hour Sehr ruhig followed by
a ten minute Nachspiel. The work is laid out for string quartet, double bass,
harp and piano. John Ireland, Fauré, Howells, Ravel and Schumann are
the names which spring to mind as reference points. In addition to the intense
sea-swell swing of the opening, Stephan also explores more ghostly and magically
still moods. Towards the end of the first movement he attains a swinging
confident life-enhancing theme although the movement ends conventionally.
The second and last movement makes the two-movement work enigmatic. The first
movement feels complete and of a piece. It is a parallel with one of the
single movement constructs featured on the first three tracks. Perhaps we
have misunderstood and Stephan simply intended to group together two independent
pieces which are simply published together because otherwise they might become
lost in the flood of music. The two pieces play quite independently. Together
it is like listening in sequence to two tone poems which share the same
The second movement 'Nachspiel' is a throatily romantic piece with a lifting
free-floating dance theme which suggests a dream ballroom. The work seems
to rake over and revive intense and painfully beautiful memories. It promises
to end in resolute energy but instead fades to a high held violin note and
the gently trilling piano.
This music reminds us that German music of this century is not simply preoccupied
with the trendy, massive, colossal or impenetrable.
I rather hope that this disc will launch a series of recordings of music
by German composers killed in or forgotten because of the Great War or the
Second World War.
The present Koch disc is the single most generous (probably only) compendium
of Stephan's music, taking in four works. I seem to remember that this collection
or at least some of these recordings have been issued previously.
The collection is distinguished by the presence of Fischer-Dieskau. Interesting
to see that he was prepared to associate his name and standing with Stephan's
Reasonable notes in German, French and English although I would have appreciated
more biographical background.
The texts of Liebeszauber are also presented trilingually but
unfortunately the different language versions are not side by side making
it difficult to follow the singing.