Concert Review

EISLER AT EDINBURGH Queen's Hall, 23 August 1999

Two concerts on the same day offered a good opportunity to reconsider this chameleon of a composer, whose full stature is only now becoming appreciated. Both events featured The Hollywood Songbook (1942-43) which I had not previously encountered; nor had Christopher Maltman, who sang the whole set of 42 songs by memory, a remarkable feat. He was partnered by Malcolm Martineau in perfect accord, and together they gave an impression of deep familiarity with the music. The audience was spell-bound, with never a cough or mobile phone to be heard! (see CD review Hollywood Songbook and other Eisler by Rob Barnett)

Mostly in German, a few in English, the majority of the songs are settings of Eisler's famous collaborator Bertolt Brecht, and they relate overwhelmingly to the home country which both had been obliged to leave. The second half is more disparate, with settings of Viertel, Morike, Eichendorff and Holderlin, also words from the Bible and by Eisler himself, and ending appropriately with The landscape of exile and Homecoming by Brecht.

Composed in Los Angeles, The Hollywood Songbook is a multi-faceted collection, which is refreshingly different from the German lieder cycle tradition to which it overtly refers. Many of the poems are down to earth, sharp and pointed, their settings economical and sometimes epigrammatic. The songs show constant individuality, recalling in their manner some features of Mussorgsky, and anticipating the Britten of the Holderlin and Blake cycles. They deal, often ironically, with issues of artistic endeavour within the horrors of war and the fickle social scene which they found in Hollywood and with the experiences of exile and longing for homeland. It was not long afterwards that Eisler was hounded out of America and forced to return to post-war Berlin.

Christopher Maltman, baritone winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World lieder prize, was suited to a tee by these songs, which lay ideally for the wide range of his voice and gave scope for lyrical and dramatic expression by turns. The whole cycle, sung straight through with no more than a brief pause in the middle, is an endurance test, which the duo met without flagging. This impressive recital by two musicians eclipsed for me several concerts at Edinburgh which employed massive orchestral and vocal forces. It was broadcast on Radio 3 and should be repeated, although listeners at home would have only a generalised impression of The Hollywood Songbook's riches without access to the full texts and translations supplied in Queen's Hall.

Heiner Goebbels (and statue of Eisler)

Some of the same songs were included in the evening's Festival Theatre Eisler presentation by Heiner Goebbels, a current cult figure whose music theatre pieces are being mounted in ten countries this year. As happens too often, theatricality held primacy, and despite loud complaints, the lights were extinguished, leaving non-German speakers adrift, unable to consult their costly programmes. Nor were the words projected on the sur-title screen. Eislermaterial used Eisler's songs and tape-recorded conversations about his proletarian credo. A tiny statuette of the composer was placed centre stage, and the musicians of Ensemble Modern, situated at the far sides and back of the large stage, were electronically amplified. Eisler's own music was frequently punctuated with modern-jazz type improvisations. We heard excerpts from his film scores, and some familiar tunes from his populist, political phase (after he had repudiated his teacher, Schönberg) were punched out forcefully. Unconducted, some items of the Hollywood Songbook were half sung, quietly and amplified, in an engaging cabaret manner. Whatever reservations are legitimate about Goebbels's homage to his revered mentor, the day as a whole left us thinking very seriously about Eisler and the causes he espoused.


Peter Grahame Woolf

Decca 460 582- 2DH: Hollywood Songbook -
RCA 74321 56882-2 Roaring Eisler (Gruber/Ensemble Modern)

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