Robert Müller-Hartmann (1884-1950)
Violin Sonata, Op. 5
Two Pieces for cello and piano
Sonata for two violins
Three Intermezzi and Scherzo, Op. 22
String Quartet No.2, Op.38
ARC Ensemble
rec. 2022, Koerner Hall, Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, Canada
Chandos CHAN20294 [69]

Some time towards the middle of August 1940, the German musician and composer, Robert Müller-Hartmann, received a letter. The writer had met Müller-Hartmann’s daughter, who was ‘naturally depressed’, though the writer goes on to say that ‘I feel that now there is great hope & I cannot but believe for what I think a great wrong will be put right.’ He goes on: ‘I feel sure then, in spite of all, you will still continue to believe in English freedom. The Government were in a terrible emergency and had to adopt … whole sale measures which wanted enquiries on many perfectly innocent people – May you soon be free to work for the country of your adoption and for the cause we all have at heart.’

Müller-Hartmann was born in Hamburg, returning there after his musical studies in Berlin. He went on to teach harmony and composition at the University of Hamburg. With the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party Müller-Hartmann’s position, as a Jew, was increasingly uncertain. In 1936, the Müller-Hartmanns’ eldest daughter went to England to work as a nanny for another German Jewish couple, Eugenia and Yanya Hornstein, who lived in the Surrey town of Dorking. Within a fairly short time, and through contacts he made with the help of Imogen Holst, Müller-Hartmann was finding work in musical circles. This came to a halt, however, in 1940 when, as an enemy alien, he was interned in a camp on the Isle of Man. This was the ‘great wrong’ referred to above.

The writer of the letter was Ralph Vaughan Williams who was a leading member of a campaign group in aid of refugees. It caused him particular pain to learn that among the interned were many musicians, and, in collaboration with other prominent figures, he agitated for their release. Thanks to this mobilisation Müller-Hartmann’s period of incarceration lasted only a few weeks, but once released his opportunities to earn his living were severely constrained by official regulations. Vaughan Williams came to his help there too, seeking out opportunities for him to undertake paid work. Vaughan Williams’s letters reveal that among the first was for Müller-Hartmann to write a concert review in the Dorking Advertiser, followed by invitations to Müller-Hartmann to participate in concerts, sometimes playing his own works. Perhaps the most important of these tasks is requested in a letter from August 1947. Vaughan Williams is writing on the subject of his Partita for Double String Orchestra, a work originally written for string sextet. He had never been completely satisfied with it, and since his musical assistant, Roy Douglas – ‘The young man who writes my music for me’! – was away on holiday, asks Müller-Hartmann to take the work on. ‘… what I want you to do is to correct any mistakes before I send it to the copyist and also tell me of any places where you think I have made any error of judgement.’ When the work was later about to be printed Vaughan Williams wrote again asking Müller-Hartmann to go through the proofs: ‘I feel I should ask you to do this, as the work belongs so much to you, and I should value your suggestions and corrections very much.’ Vaughan Williams dedicated the work to Müller-Hartmann, though the latter never got to see the printed score, as he died suddenly in December 1950. A letter of the following November from Vaughan Williams to his widow informs her that he has at last received a copy of the printed score which he is sending to her.

The dates of the works in this collection of Müller-Hartmann’s chamber music are uncertain, but all were composed before he left Germany to establish himself in England. Once in England he seems to have composed little. The first movement of the Violin Sonata begins like a conventional salon piece but later passages have more character, alternating songlike melancholy and striking energy. The slow movement is rhapsodic and based on an attractive theme given at the outset. Its wistful close prepares us for a more passionate and forceful finale that builds up a fair head of steam by the end. When one considers what other music was being written elsewhere in the early 1920s one can only agree with the booklet’s estimate that Müller-Hartmann had ‘no use’ for his contemporaries’ experimental techniques.

Melancholy again runs through the Two Pieces, with a little more life in the middle section of the second. The piano part really is an accompaniment and subsidiary to the solo part. Music for two unaccompanied violins can sometimes be a bit of an ordeal, but the Sonata here is, for this listener, the most attractive music in the collection. The lively first movement leads into the second, which is more peaceful and a fairly strict canon between the two instruments. A trenchant yet playful scherzo (plus a calmer trio) precedes a finale that is moto perpetuo with interludes. The whole work must be tremendous fun to rehearse and to play.

Perhaps understandably, the composer most evoked in Op. 22 is Brahms, though the music lacks the complexity of texture and figuration that we find in most of Brahms’s solo piano music. There are some very un-Brahmsian rhythmic devices in the Scherzo. The short second intermezzo is perhaps the most convincing movement overall, but the way in which the final cadence of the third is signalled and then managed is as exquisite as it is skilful. At around 18 minutes, the String Quartet presents in the same dimensions as the Violin Sonata. Despite a lively opening movement and a deeply felt, if too brief, slow movement, this is the work that engages this listener the least.

This collection provides us with a portrait of a highly professional and competent composer. The music is superbly well written and adapted to the forces required. There are many passages of considerable expressivity and moments of pathos. It rather lacks that spark, however, that would transform it from music that is pleasant to listen to and which holds the attention to music that fully engages the listener’s heart and mind.

The performances on this disc are beyond reproach. ARC stands for Artists of the Royal Conservatory, and all the players are members of the teaching staff of that respected Toronto institution. Their performances are highly expressive and technically impressive and make the very best case for the music. The lion’s share of the work, as usual in this kind of recital, is taken by pianist Kevin Ahfat, and he is joined by Erika Raum for the Violin Sonata, who duets with Marie Bérard in the Sonata for Two Violins. The Two Pieces are played by Thomas Wiebe and violist Steven Dann joins the team to play the String Quartet. The recordings are excellent, and listeners will benefit from a fine booklet essay by the ensemble’s artistic director, Simon Wynberg. It sets the composer firmly in his historical and cultural context, so that any listener for whom the name Robert Müller-Hartmann was unknown – or known only through the Vaughan Williams connection – will come away from the essay, and from this excellent collection of performances, very much the wiser.

William Hedley

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (November 2023)

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