Lincke Overtures Volume 2 CPO

Paul Lincke (1866-1946)
Overtures Volume 2
Frau Luna (1899)
Nakiris Hochzeit (1902)
Ein Liebestraum (1940)
Im Reiche des Indra (1899)
Sinnbild-Walzer (1898)
Brandbrief-Galopp (c. 1906-1908)
Das blaue Bild (1906)
Ouvertüre zu einer Revue (1928)
Ouvertüre zu einer Festlichkeit (1933)
Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt/Ernst Theis
rec. 2020, Messehalle 1, Frankfurt Oder
cpo 555 448-2 [66]

It was only a couple of months ago that I reviewed the first volume of the cpo label’s tribute to Paul Lincke.  Rather than repeat all the background information that I gave on that occasion, I refer readers unfamiliar with the composer to my earlier piece.

What we have here is, for the most part, another selection of Lincke’s operetta overtures, although the otherwise pretty relentless sequence of somewhat formulaic pieces is interrupted mid-flow by a couple of others – the Sinnbild-Walzer concert waltz and the Brandbrief-Galopp – that offer a welcome, albeit temporary, change of musical mood.  As with the first volume in this series, Stefan Frey has provided an excellent booklet essay that once again draws attention to the distinctive form of operetta that Lincke pioneered in Berlin.  It was one that was very different to those staged in Paris or in Vienna, for it was more closely related to the performances that were then popular at the German capital’s music halls – often simply mixed programmes featuring variety artistes who might include acrobats, clowns, comedians and mind-readers as well as singers.  Berlin operetta sought to target the same audiences who watched those vaudeville shows in the very same theatres.  As such it was a deliberately lightweight, comparatively unsophisticated and untaxing form of musical entertainment, more likely to involve broad farce and rather racy plot-lines than heavy drama or deep tragedy.  The overtures therefore tend, on the whole, to be rather jolly affairs with straightforward melodies, lots of rum-ti-tum foot-tapping passages, and plenty of points at which you can easily imagine a suitably well-oiled audience humming or even singing – sometimes sentimentally, sometimes raucously – along. 

A caveat is, however, necessary at this point, for, in a supplementary booklet note reprinted from the first disc in this series, conductor Ernst Theis can be found taking a rather more elevated – if self-admittedly subjective – view of the composer’s musical achievements.  Maestro Theis’s views defy easy paraphrase, and his somewhat gushing enthusiasm is therefore best appreciated in its original form: “Lincke’s art… is that he can achieve expression in simplicity and also in complexity of his musical ideas, that his overflowing wealth of musical invention never becomes trivial or ingratiating, that his music does not necessarily need a libretto, but that the stories of his libretti always resonate, that his music can create literally imaginary spaces in which emotions bubble up, touching people dramatically in the sense of releasing exciting tension, whether it is funny, charming, serious, saucy, transparent, superficial or hidden, accompanying or obtrusive… that the dramaturgy of his works develops musical form that wants to reach people directly, [and] that his musical invention always strives for artistic richness and not first of all for economic success with the cheapest possible means…”. 

In that passage and others, Theis describes a very personal journey that has led him to conclude that Paul Lincke should be granted major-ish status within a minor league of composers that otherwise includes the likes of Jacques Offenbach and Johann Strauss II.  Make what you will of that, but I’m afraid that, having now listened to both the earlier volume and this one, I find myself generally unconvinced by such special pleading, and, while certainly not inclined to dismiss Lincke’s output altogether, cannot share Theis’s degree of enthusiasm for it.  Ultimately, I instead find myself at one with the audience in the Apollo Theatre’s cheapest seats, as, with a Bratwurst hot dog in one hand and anoverflowing glass of Berliner Kindl Weisse in the other, we sing happily along to Lincke’s catchy tunes without concerning ourselves in the slightest with their composer’s overall musical intention or reputation. 

And, after two or three encounters, those tunes can be pretty addictive – real ear-worms, even if none of those showcased on this new CD ever quite reaches the iconic status of Lincke’s biggest hit Berliner Luft (1904).  The disc kicks off with the overture to the composer’s breakthrough work Frau Luna (“Mrs Moon”), a tale of three earthlings who journey to the moon and enjoy romantic and other entanglements with the eponymous heroine.  In light of the point raised earlier, it is surely significant that its original billing was as a “burlesque-fantastical operetta with luxury décor”, a telling indication that its promoters assumed that Frau Luna’s quite literally out-of-this-world sets would be of greater interest to its audience than its music.  Although Frau Luna’s overture is significantly more concise than any of the others included here, it shares many of the hallmarks of the other overtures that Lincke wrote during this first successful phase of his career and craftily wins the theatre audience’s attention by repeatedly deploying just a couple of relatively simply presented melodies – in this case, a sentimental waltz and a jaunty march.

Although each is longer than Frau Luna, the other operetta overtures that Lincke composed in this period of his career recognisably share some of those same characteristics.   Im Reiche des Indra (“In the Indian empire”) majors on a march that might have come straight out of one of those old Hollywood epics in which the heroic exploits of Colonel Sir C. Aubrey Smith’s regiment save the day for the Raj.  That is alternated, to little surprise, with a typical bit of pastiche exoticism and, rather more bizarrely, with another theme that might perhaps depict a fashionable Berlin boulevardier promenading along Unter den LindenNakiris Hochzeit (“Nakiri’s wedding”) takes us even further east to Thailand.  This time, however, Lincke chooses to avoid anything much in the way of (imagined) local musical colour, conveying the impression that young Nakiri might just as convincingly be making her vows in Berlin as in Bangkok.  Further lack of specificity is apparent in Das blaue Bild (“The blue picture”), with even the composer and his publishers apparently unsure how best to present it to the public: marketed in 1906 as a “fantasy in one Act”, within five years it had instead been re-characterised as a Singspiel.  While Mr Frey is clearly quite taken with its overture (“…very Parisian… with furious Presto opening, striking solos for cornet and clarinet, and buoyant mood, now rapturously lyrical, now vibrantly high-spirited”) I’m afraid that to my own ears – and particularly when heard in sequence with other Lincke compositions – it doesn’t stand out as a particularly distinctive piece.

In some ways, the two tracks on this disc that aren’t actually overtures at all emerge as among the more enjoyable.  The Sinnbild-Walzer (“Symbol waltz”) is an accomplished, albeit conventionally formulaic, work that one can easily imagine being played for grand gatherings in the aristocratic ballrooms of the Second Reich.  Another stand-alone piece, the Brandbrief-Galopp (“Final warning gallop”) is simply an enjoyable romp.  Such galoppades usually brought balls to a close after a long evening on the dance floor, but one imagines that only the youngest and fittest participants could have coped, at that stage, with Lincke’s lively tempi.

After about 1910, Lincke’s commercial success largely petered out but he still composed occasional pieces and three of them are represented on this disc.  The stand-alone Ouvertüre zu einer Revue (“Overture to a revue”) is, as Mr Frey points out, a musical throwback to pre-war Germany, ignoring more recent musical trends, such as the growing influence of jazz, that a genuine Berlin revue of the Weimar Republic-era might have been expected to reflect.  The year of its composition, 1928, actually witnessed the premiere of Die Dreigroschenoper (“The threepenny opera”) but what Lincke would have made of Kurt Weill’s musical style is almost impossible to imagine.

Lincke’s musical conservatism actually made him exactly the sort of composer who appealed to the Nazis, and, while I know nothing at all about his political views, it may be of some significance that, in 1933, Hitler’s very first year in power, he composed an Ouvertüre zu einer Festlichkeit (“Overture to a public celebration”).  Of course, it may simply be that Lincke was merely an opportunist seizing an appropriate moment to curry official favour, but the evidence of this stand-alone composition’s music, not at least its martial opening, certainly suggests that he was already entirely up to speed with the Nazi regime’s preferred musical idiom.  Call Herbert Windt’s scores to Triumph of the will and Olympia or those to the Die Deutsche Wochenshau wartime newsreels to mind and you won’t be too far off the mark.  Even if Lincke’s motives are unclear, what is known for certain is that Hitler’s government celebrated his 70th birthday in 1936, promoted his musical reputation thereafter and in 1940 gave his final full-length operetta Ein Liebestraum (“A dream of love”) a prestigious broadcast premiere on Berlin Radio, as well as generously subsidising its staged performances in the following year.  Ein Liebestraum is another piece that could easily have been written in Wilhelmine Germany and its overture – a lively medley of its best tunes that, as might have been expected, pays little heed to trends in contemporary music in the wider world – at least manages, on this occasion, to steer clear of contemporary political events.

As I have made plain, on the evidence of this disc and its predecessor, I am unable to agree with Ernst Theis’s elevated evaluation of Paul Lincke’s overall musical significance.  Nevertheless, I cannot imagine any other conductor proving a better advocate for these scores.  Every track is delivered with conviction, verve and a degree of care that one imagines was rarely accorded this music in the circumstances of its original performance.  Skilfully recorded by cpo’s engineers, the musicians of the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt manage the tricky task of both taking the scores seriously and, when appropriate, letting their hair down and giving it their all.  They certainly deserve to be heard in music that, if perhaps not as revelatory as claimed, will certainly give plenty of mostly light-hearted pleasure to anyone who hears it.

Rob Maynard

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