Perhaps you remember Decca’s wonderful “Entartete Musik” series which started in the early 1990s, music which was banned by the Nazis. You may also recall the series on Koch “The Terezin Music Anthology”. Even before that Channel Classics produced a series of discs “Chamber Music from Theresienstadt”. Since then there have been more discoveries on other labels but before circa 1990 this music was unknown to the general public. The emphasis of this renaissance has often throughout this period been on the chamber works and sometimes on the orchestral music. At last the songs are given an opportunity. Amongst the composers who are not represented on this CD one could add Gideon Klein, Rudolf Karel and Hans Krasa, all of them annihilated under the Nazis. All were youngish men whose careers were just about to take off and all had Jewish ancestry. Some, like Erich Korngold or Berthold Goldschmidt escaped to America or Britain or elsewhere after 1933. I have seen a film of Pavel Haas conducting his Study for Strings at Theresienstadt made by Nazi propagandists for the Red Cross no less, to show how well they were treating their artists in the ‘camps’. One week or so after the film was made, Haas and many other musicians were dead.
The booklet has one of the best essays on the musical background to the works that I have read as well as extensive biographies on the composers. Texts of all of the songs are provided except that is for Goldschmidt’s first song ‘Clouds’ with words by Rupert Brooke written in 1950 which is obviously in English; Goldschmidt was living in London by then. Some of these composers had been pupils of Janacek, like Pavel Haas whose ‘Songs in a folk style’ are some of the most delightful pieces on the disc. Some knew Bartok or had attended lectures by Hindemith. Ullmann had been a pupil of Schoenberg. That is the starting point of his harmonic language but the melodic and rhythmic language of folk melody and folk dance are often also an influence.
So what can we say of this fascinating collection of songs? I mentioned Goldschmidt. He had been a student of Schreker and it’s true to say that throughout his career he hardly expanded on his teacher’s language. I have come to know his music quite well and feel that his earlier pre-war stuff has more to say than anything post-war. The songs are attractive and subtle but have little in them that is memorable. Also, as they are rather short, they are not easily programmable.
Schreker’s songs open the disc. There are eight of them, settings of Jul Sturm, E. Sherenberg and Dora Leen which was a pseudonym for Dora Pollock, a Jewish poetess. They do not represent the composer as you might know him, that is through the banned opera ‘Der Ferne Klang’ (completed in 1910) and the ‘Chamber Symphony’ (!916). Although charming and each song is well contrasted they remain mostly derivative of Pfitzner and Loewe, romantic and conservative composers in vogue at the time.
Erwin Schulhoff is a fascinating figure, You may know him as a brilliant composer of chamber music. His songs bring to the fore the exceptional pianism of Craig Combs. These inhabit an ambiguous harmonic language; Debussy crossed with Alban Berg. It is here and in the accompaniment to Haas’s songs that the pianist carries the most weight. Indeed the Haas songs feel as if they are piano studies with vocal embellishment, Schulhoff has a more balanced and individual approach. He takes five poems which he may well have written himself. They are expressionist and elusive: ‘Pain lies irksome/With plenty fingers it gropes for the soul’.
Korngold’s songs are memorable, romantic, tuneful and probably come off the best on the disc. Viktor Ullmann’s songs are also expressionist in nature. In five poems by the versatile authoress Ricard Huch the language of Ullmann’s songs may remind you of late Strauss or even Wolf. They are moving but I’m not sure if Judith Sheridan is quite the right singer for them, Which brings me neatly to the performance as a whole.
Judith Sheridan is very committed to this project, hence her vast and superbly presented notes, with her list of thank-yous on the back of the CD and her scrupulous choice of pieces and careful diction. However I left the CD wishing the whole recital to be performed again but by someone else. Some songs, like Ullmann’s need a real soprano yet he uses the lower register also. Sheridan does not quite fit the bill. Her upper register does not convince although she has a lovely pianissimo on top Gs but she evaporates into a different voice in the lower reaches, with too much vibrato for my taste anyway. Craig Combs is sympathetic and extremely competent. His use of pedal is discreet and he is supportive and careful with dynamics. No praise is too high for his contribution. All in all an interesting collection, recorded in a friendly, domestic acoustic but not music to rattle anyone’s cage or be picked up by other singers as a result of this CD.
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