rathaus chamber dux

Karol Rathaus (1895-1954)
Chamber Works
Eine kleine Serenade for clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet and piano Op. 23 (1927)
Pastorale and Danse for violin and piano Op. 39 (1937)
Song of the Autumn for clarinet and piano (No Op. no.) (1941)
Three English Songs for voice and piano Op. 48 (1941-2)
Five Moods after American Poets for voice and piano Op. 57 (1946)
Dedication and Allegro ‘Hommage à Chopin’ for violin and piano Op. 64 (1949)
Rapsodia notturna for cello and piano Op. 66 (1950)
Karol Rathaus Ensemble
Roksana Wardenga (mezzo-soprano)
Piotr Nowak (trumpet), Damian Lipień (bassoon), Paweł Cal (horn)
rec. 2022, Karol Szymanowski State General Secondary Music School Concert Hall, Warsaw, Poland
English texts included
First recordings: Eine kleine Serenade, Five Moods after American Poets, the first of the Three English Songs
DUX 1854 [75]

Karol Rathaus was Jewish, of Polish origin. He was born in Ternopil, now in Ukraine but then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied in Vienna and later in Berlin, where his teacher was Franz Schreker. He was seen as a rising star in Weimar Germany, where his ballet Der letze Pierrot caused a sensation and his first two symphonies much controversy. He saw the writing on the wall and left Germany in 1932. After unsuccessful stays in France and Britain he finally moved to New York, where he became a Professor of Composition. To his own surprise, he enjoyed this, and his later works were written for his students in a much simpler idiom than the dissonant modernist works which had made him famous in Germany, and which he later disowned. His music, like that of other Jewish composers of the time, was long forgotten, but a revival started with Israel Yinon’s recording of Der letzte Pierrot and the first symphony in Decca’s invaluable Entartete Musik series towards the end of the last century. (Yinon went on to record the two subsequent symphonies, this time for CPO, review.) Since then, there has been, not a flood but a trickle of new releases, of which this is the latest.

Here we have works from both Rathaus’s European and his American periods, helpfully programmed in chronological order. Eine kleine Serenade is scored for the intriguing combination of clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet and piano. I know of no other work for precisely this combination, which must make it difficult to programme, which is a pity, as it is a delightful work. There are three movements, the first lively in a rather Hindemithian way, the second with a kind of acrid lyricism featuring the bassoon and muted trumpet, and the finale, much the longest movement, is a theme and variations in which all the players have a chance to shine individually. In the background are perhaps Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale and Schoenberg’s Serenade, but no matter.

The Pastorale and Danse for violin and piano is another fine work. The Pastorale begins and ends with a yearning theme on the violin, but in the middle we get a gentle, then a more vigorous dance. The actual Danse is like one of Bartók’s driving Allegros, basically fierce but with a playful episode.

Song of the Autumn for clarinet and piano was written after Rathaus had taken up his teaching position and was written for his students. By now he had softened his idiom into a late romantic one. This is a gentle work.

We then have two actual song cycles. Rathaus must have quickly acquired a good command of English, as both cycles set poems in English. The first cycle, Three English Songs, is the more straightforward, with the settings respectively late romantic, vigorous and declamatory. Five Moods after American Poets are somewhat wry, even sardonic, with an idiom which is a little closer to expressionism. I found both of these rewarding.

Finally, we have two late works. The Dedication and Allegro ‘Hommage à Chopin’ has nothing of Chopin about it, and may have been an attempt to repeat the success of the Pastorale and Danse. Sadly, it is nothing like as good. The Dedication is a mildly attractive winsome piece of no great substance, and the Allegro is a violin display piece, again recalling Bartók. Similarly, the Rapsodia notturna for cello and piano is eloquent, but of no great moment and unmemorable.

The pianist Aleksandra Hałat formed the Karol Rathaus Ensemble precisely to perform his works and this is their second recording. The first was of trios – review. The basic ensemble consists of violin, clarinet, cello and piano, which incidentally, is the precise ensemble required by Hindemith’s piano quartet and Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, both of which they perhaps will one day give us. Here they are joined by guests, notably the mezzo-soprano Roksana Wardenga, who sings the song cycles with a slight and not unpleasant accent. The recording is impeccable and the booklet helpful, with the English texts of the songs included. I enjoyed this disc, though I could not help wondering what Rathaus’s music might have been like, had he been able to continue on his earlier, more adventurous path.

Stephen Barber

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