Wild Sounds 1923 BR 900206

Der wilde Sound der 20er – 1923
(The Wild Sounds of the 20s – 1923)
Ernst Toch (1887-1964)
Tanz Suite for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass and percussion, Op 30 (1923)
Kurt Weill (1900-1950)
Frauentanz, seven medieval poems for soprano, flute, viola, clarinet, French horn and bassoon, Op 10 (1923)
Ernst Krenek (1900-91)
Three mixed choruses a cappella, Op 22 (1923)
Bela Bartok (1881-1945)
Tanz Suite for orchestra, Sz. 77 (1923)
Anna-Maria Palii (soprano)
Bavarian Radio Chorus/Howard Arman
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Cristian Măcelaru
rec. live, 8-10 March 2017, Gasteig Philharmonic Hall, Munich (Bartók); 2021/22, BR Studios
BR Klassik 900206 [69]

The raison d’être of this remarkable CD is to commemorate/celebrate an important event. On 29 October 1923, the first German public broadcast was made from an office block on Potsdamer Straße, Berlin. The very first programme heard was the “Berlin Radio Hour”. The blurb for this disc says: “Broadcasting offered completely new possibilities for the production and reception of music.” The four composers here “not only benefited from these developments, some of them also played an active role in shaping them”. They all would go on to write music specifically for radio.

1923 saw political crises, rampant inflation, and the after-effects of the First World War and the Spanish Flu. This music reflects the foment in musical expression occurring at that time: serialism, jazz, late romanticism, nationalism and folksong.

Ernst Toch’s Tanz Suite was commissioned by the expressive dancer and teacher Frieda Ursula Back; like Toch, she was a lecturer at Manheim music academy. She gave the premiere of the original four-movement version under the title Der Wald (The Forest) on 19 November 1923. That was some ten days after Hitler’s failed coup attempt, the Beer Hall Putsch. Toch added two short intermezzos when he came to revise the Suite for the concert hall. The six movements, all with choreographic titles, give a good impression of the work: The Red Whirl Dance, The Dance of Horror, Idyll, The Dance of Silence, Grotesque and finally, The Dance of Awakening.

Stylistically, Toch has moved away from “the exaggerated expressive world and harmonies of Late Romanticism” and has absorbed the music of Stravinsky and Hindemith. He also continued to develop his own distinctive voice. The Suite is scored for a “Pierrot” ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass, and percussion. It is the variety, the emotional contrast, and the sheer invention that Toch has created from this small group – ideally heard in this performance – that makes the Suite so appealing and interesting.

There is a problem with Kurt Weill’s Frauentanz. The booklet has no texts of the songs, and not even translations of the titles. (One expects that few people will have access to all these medieval poems on their bookshelves.) Neither do the programme notes explain the history of the work. Ronald Taylor’s Kurt Weill: Composer in a Divided World (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1991) comes to the rescue. He relates that Weill met a certain Nelly Frank at his brother Hans’s engagement party. They became “emotionally involved” and shared a holiday in Italy. Nelly was already married; her husband refused a divorce and took her to the United States. The affair was over. Taylor writes that “in the shadow cast by the hopelessness of the emotional situation [Weill] composed his song-cycle Frauentanz the following year, transmuting his suffering into the Platonic symbolism of medieval courtly love, the worship of an unattainable ideal of happiness fulfilled”. Frauentanz, written in June-July 1923, was premiered in Berlin at an International Society for Contemporary Music concert in January 1924.

The title Frauentanz alludes to the noble ladies of the medieval Minnesang. This was a form of lyric that flourished in Germany between the 12th and the 14th century. “Minne” is the High German word for “loving remembrance”. No matter what these lieder mean, they present an impression of lyricism, wit and emotionalism. The accompaniment – flute, viola, clarinet, French horn and bassoon – is luminous and engaging.

Curiously, Weill wrote to Busoni that he wanted these lieder to be sung “without any sentimentality, with a slender, light and yet expressive voice”. Anna-Maria Palii is anything but “slender” or “light” with her approach to this song cycle. She sings without a trace of mawkishness and with masterly articulation.

One final thought. In 1947, on his way back to America after visiting his parents in Palestine, Weill stopped over in Switzerland to visit Nelly for one last time. They discussed happy days in the past…

Equally problematic, without texts and translations, are Ernst Krenek’s Three mixed choruses a cappella. The poems were sourced from the work of Matthias Claudius (1740-1815), a German poet and journalist. When the crisis came in 1923, Krenek decided to return to Austria, seemingly staying at Alma Mahler’s villa. At that time, he was involved with Alma’s daughter Anna. There, he devised the Choruses, using “the folksong like works written by a lyricist from the age of sensibility”. Krenek took these apparently simple poems, authored in “pure and simple German” and developed them as “parables, critically reflecting and commenting on contemporary experiences and developments” – not least his own love affair. The titles of the three settings are Der Mensch (The Human Being), Tröstung (Consolation), and Die Römer: Ein Versuch in Versen (The Romans: An Essay in Verse). Whatever the sense of the poems, Krenek’s music is thoughtful, harmonically delicious, and is a perfectly balanced choral statement.

Béla Bartók’s Tanz Suite was commissioned in 1923 for a concert on 17 November of that year, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the merger of the cities of Buda, Pest and Óbuda into Budapest. Other music heard at this concert included Zoltán Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus and Ernő Dohnányi’s now largely forgotten but delightful Festival Overture. Bartók’s Tanz Suite makes use of folk-song-like melodies of the composer’s own devising. These tunes reach far beyond Hungary.They include influences from Romania, Slovakia and northern Africa. Interestingly, the Suite is not just a collection of six varied dances but is unified by a beautiful repeating theme; the finale recalls music heard in the previous dances. Here, it gets an absorbing performance which discovers the colourful and often radiant quality of Bartók’s orchestration.

The helpful liner notes (in German and English) set the works in their historical and political context. There is information about the choir and the orchestra, but none about the soprano soloist, Anna-Marie Palii. As noted, sadly no texts or translations were included.

The performances are superb. The outstanding recording adds to the listening pleasure. This well-conceived programme of music, written with the possibilities of radio in the composer’s minds, perfectly reflects “the time between modernity and tradition, revolution and republic, jazz and dance music”.

John France

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