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CD Review

20th-Century Austro-German Music for Winds

Christian Tetzlaff, violin
Soloists of the German Chamber Philharmonic
Virgin Classics CDC 5 45056 2
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All the composers here took part in the great Diaspora during the Thirties of Germany's and Austria's finest artists and intellectuals, probably the largest migration of brains and talent since the days of the court of Urbino. Canada, the U.S., and Britain benefitted the most. In Los Angeles alone, one could find Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Toch, Kurt Weill (briefly), Thomas Mann, Erich Korngold, Bertold Brecht, Hans Eisler, Ernst Krenek, Bruno Walter, and others. Arguably, Germany has only begun to recover from the loss.

Severely underrated in my opinion, Kurt Weill (1900-1950) as a composer continually astonishes me. He wrote masterpieces at the age of 19. Many of his finest and best-known works appeared before he reached 30. I recently finished Kowalke's A New Orpheus: Essays on Kurt Weill and was struck by the dust-jacket photograph of an almost baby-faced Weill (though with a receding hairline) at the time of Lady in the Dark (1937). Dreigroschenoper, Mahagonny, and Die sieben Todsünden were already behind him. How young he was! As a theater composer in this century, he has no superior, having, with Brecht and others, practically redefined opera. I can detect certain elements of the "epic theater" in Busoni's puppet-play operas, and, of course, Weill studied with Busoni. Nevertheless, in the older man's work, traces of Romantic opera linger, which in Weill are ironic or even mercilessly parodied. Furthermore, I can find very little trace of Busoni's influence on Weill's instrumental writing. Certainly, Weill's violin concerto shares almost nothing with Busoni's.

Weill, in fact, remarked that no one could hope to understand his concerto who didn't know something of Schoenberg. Before he followed Schoenberg's decree of Weill's excommunication from the ranks of true artists, the philosopher-critic Adorno, in his first major essay on Weill, pointed out the violin concerto's affinities with the music of Berg, Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Mahler. I hear a bit of the Cardillac Hindemith, very little of Stravinsky (except in the lucidity of the scoring), something of Berg, and a lot of Mahler. In the last case, it's not a question of idiom, but of emotional landscape. Lotte Lenya wrote that, at her first meeting with Weill, she knew without being told he was a composer: he wore a hat, "like most young composers then," almost exactly like Mahler's. Weill works the grotesque, rather than the transcendent element of Mahler: the march of ghostly regiments, funeral processions in a cold wind, the spectral serenades across an emotional no-man's land, the skeletal Ländler, the manic flights and sudden outbursts of the Wunderhorn songs and the fifth and seventh symphonies.

The Soloists of the German Chamber Philharmonic have this music nailed, and not only technically. They play with the right dash of vinegar, and in fact they replace my former favorite performance by the London Sinfonietta under Atherton (a bit too lush). The violinist Christian Tezlaff does well, fitting right into the group, but he isn't bold enough. He functions almost completely as a team player, and I do prefer the Sinfonietta's soloist, Nona Liddell. Still, a performance full of sympathy, understanding, and the craft of ensemble playing.

I admit I'm a Hindemith head-banger. I like almost everything I've heard from his enormous catalogue, partly, I believe, because I find his idiom of superimposed fourths and fifths interesting in itself and because I find that I respond emotionally to the unfolding of abstract musical form. The opening movement of Hindemith's second piano sonata (and every movement of the Symphony in Bb) can just about rapture me out. With the exception of the string quartets (which stir up within me nothing but indifference), I especially love the chamber music. Not the least of its charms is that it strikes me as fun to get together and play the stuff. I miss this in the Soloists' performance of the Septet – a curiously charmless account, for the most part. The first movement should bubble (and burble), but the performers seem to have it in their heads that this is Significant Stuff and therefore seem to pull long faces. I should, however, admit that they clarify Hindemith's counterpoint like nobody's business. They negotiate the shifting balances of instruments with great efficiency and without mistep. They just don't seem to enjoy their work. The slow second movement – a poetic study in shifting textures and instrumental combinations – again benefits from great ensemble work, but it sounds emotionally sour here in a way I've heard in no other performance. Frankly, I wish they'd found another way in. The third-movement variations pass smoothly, but here – even in the "peasant-dance" finale – without much interest, a state which continues through the fourth movement, where the performance seems to lose all its gas. The finale's fugue with "old Bernese march" picks up in interest, but mainly due to Hindemith's wit. The trumpeter, Matthias Höfs, entrusted with the march tune, seems to wake up here and gives the account what juice it gets.

The players' distance that worked against the Hindemith supports, in a curious way, the Toch, itself a rather curious piece. Scored for woodwind quartet, two horns, and an enlarged percussion battery requiring two hitters, the work consists of three miniatures followed by two larger character pieces. The instrumentation, always clear, calls for continually increasing forces throughout the work, until at the last, Toch works up to an exuberance of combination and mass. For the most part, the work goes along in Toch's usual idiom – definitely modern in phrasing, rhythm, and harmony, but with links to late-nineteenth-century German chromaticism. Strangest of all is the short third movement, titled "Night Song," a nostalgic evocation of, to my ear, Wagner's Meistersinger. Toch spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles, scoring the occasional movie and teaching aspiring composers their business. The little song hits like a twinge of homesickness among high spirits. Here, and at similar points in the penultimate movement, the Soloists find the heart of the music and thus effectively play against the composer's deliberate detachment in the rest of the score.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz