United Kingdom Eisler: Christopher Maltman (baritone), Julius Drake (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 1.6.2013 (MB)
‘Fascinating’ hardly begins to describe Hanns Eisler. A pupil of both Schoenberg and Webern, who to a certain extent rejected Schoenberg and the mainstream of ‘New Music’ on account of his political convictions, Eisler proved a surer collaborator with Brecht than Weill had ever done. (Weill’s selling out in his American exile is one of the saddest stories of twentieth-century music; the composer of the Violin Concerto. the Second Symphony, and Mahagonny reduced to non-ironic churning out of popular song.) Exiled from the Third Reich, Eisler would eventually be expelled from the McCarthyite USA too, despite support from luminaries as diverse as Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Henri Matisse, and a good few others. The final phase of his career would be spent in the GDR, where the collaboration with Brecht would continue. Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik continues to bear Eisler’s name.
The Hollywood Songbook, as one would expect, comes from Eisler’s years in Los Angeles, being made up of songs written in 1942 and 1943. As Christopher Maltman pointed out in his engaging spoken introduction to the recital, one thing about LA – at least from a European standpoint – is simply how far away it is from home; Eisler’s émigré status, not without bitterness, shines through, and clearly offered a starting point to Maltman and pianist Julius Drake, whose idea it had been to perform the Songbook. It was a splendid opportunity, though there were times when I wondered whether performing Eisler alongside music from the traditions, past and more present, from which he had been uprooted and indeed from which he had uprooted himself, from Schubert to Schoenberg, might have been a better idea. One can argue fruitlessly, though, about immersion versus contextualisation; both have their advantages. I cannot imagine that anyone in a clearly appreciative Wigmore Hall audience would have been disappointed, either with the songs performed or the excellent performances.
The first half was devoted to Brecht’s ‘Flight’ songs. Having Brecht’s original texts printed in the programme enabled one to hear the good number of changes Eisler made to them, often minor but not always so. Poised somewhere between Schoenberg and Hindemith – a rough and ready description, but one that might help to place him for those unacquainted with his music – Eisler’s voice sounded strongly from the outset, a language not so distant from Schoenberg’s period of ‘free atonality’ evident in the piano introduction to ‘Der Sohn’. (I thought more than once of the op.11 Piano Pieces.) And when ‘her heart kept beating so loud’ (‘Ihr Herz, das pchte so laut’), it certainly did, Drake having mastered rhetoric as well as musical language; the anger in the first song’s conclusion was palpable. Maltman’s excellent German diction and fine communicative skills proved just what was required, very different from Matthias Goerne (whose recording offers an inevitable frame of reference): less dark, in a sense, but finely attuned to the shifting moods of both Brecht and Eisler. The second ‘Sohn’ song thus offered a well-judged balance between the helpless and the defiant, the latter characteristic undeniably present but never exaggerated; words and music did the job largely for themselves, or so it seemed. A sardonic approach, for instance in ‘In den Weiden’, works so much better than caricature. ‘Little’ touches, such as the eloquently spoken ‘das Hoffen’ (hope) with which ‘Frühling 1942’ concluded, proved splendidly telling, followed as it was a postlude somehow both nonchalant and felt. The richness of Maltman’s description of beer, goat’s cheese, fresh bread and berries in ‘Speisekammer 1942’ was such that one could almost taste the goods so cruelly denied the emigrant across the seas. Deep sadness characterised ‘Über den Selbstmord’, again all the more so for the lack of self-imposition from the artists; one felt duly numb at the end. In the barrage of ‘Gedenktafel für 4000 Soldaten, die im Krieg gegen Norwegen versenkt wurden,’ Drake’s piano part proved fiercely relentless, likewise Maltman’s vocal delivery, just the right side of hectoring. Succinct, even spare, the ensuing ‘Epitaph auf einen in der Flandernschlacht Gefallenen’ made its point all the more clearly after that. Attention to detail made all the difference; for instance the second recounting of the words ‘ich bin noch da’ (I’m still here) in ‘Spruch’, not only louder, but richer in tone. ‘Der Kirschdieb’ was skittish but not carefree; unease manifested itself in the piano’s disintegrating dance rhythms, whilst its chromaticism, in ‘Winterspruch’ drew one in emotionally, both in terms of work and performance. A darkly sardonic – perhaps more Goerne-like – rendition of ‘Panzerschlacht’ offered a Lehrstück of sorts, yet remained above all a song, a Lied, perhaps the ultimate defiance, Eisler’s echoes of Schubert’s Erlkönig reminding us of great distance, both geographical and chronological.
The second half opened with the ‘Anakreontische Fragmente’, by way of Hölderlin. High spirits, not notably evident before, offered contrast in the opening ‘Geselligkeit betreffend’, rendering Maltman’s imploring performance of the ensuing ‘Dir auch wurde Sehnsucht’ all the more touching in its sadness. In many of the songs, the semi-autonomous nature of the piano part – again, Hindemith came to mind, if only as a starting reference – came equally to the fore, the strength of musical structure in, for example, ‘In der Frühe’ readily apparent. The balance, or dialectic, between what we might call ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ was finely projected in the ‘Zwei Lieder nach Worten von Pascal’, Pascal’s Pensées (in English) offering an ideal condensation of form and expression. ‘Erinnerung an Eichendorff und Schumann’ provided, as its title suggests, a moving remembrance of both Eichendorff and Schumann. (It would be renewed in the encore: Schumann’s original setting of ‘Aus der Heimat’.) Head voice offered a degree of characterisation in the Goethe setting, ‘Der Schatzgräber’, unearthly, with a proper sense of the sinister, whilst a more involved, ‘German Romantic’ quality reasserted itself upon a return to Hölderlin, in ‘Andenken’. There was, similarly, an aching sense of ‘lateness’, of the ‘hopelessness’ of the ‘too late’, in ‘An eine Stadt’, dedicated to Schubert, with its gnawingly memorable, seemingly ‘remembered’, harmonies. Much the same could be said of ‘Erinnerung’. A post-expressionist nightmare briefly summoned itself in ‘Nightmare’: angry, chilling, surreal, or all three? If that aggression were echoed in the first of the five Brecht ‘Elegien’, the second offered an almost Strauss-like, yet far from incongruous, Romanticism, albeit heavily ironised in its postlude. ‘Vom Sprengen des Gartens’ summoned up a longing for the gardens of home, but the final ‘Die Heimkehr’ remained clear-eyed about what return might bring. What would the native town (‘Vaterstadt’) look like after the bombers had done their work? Such was the tragedy, or part of the tragedy, of post-war Germany; the song’s bitter truthfulness once again proved all the more telling for the lack of histrionics.