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Around Prague
Miroslav PONC (1902-1976)
The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower Op. 11(1926) [6:28]
Hans Aldo SCHIMMERLING (1900-1967)
Six Miniatures for Chamber Orchestra (1922) [10:36]
Emil František BURIAN (1904-1959)
Small Overture Op. 42 (1927) [4:42]
About Children (1924) [7:09]
Alois HÁBA (1893-1973)
Nonet No. 2 Op. 42 (1932) [11:57]
Miroslav PONC
Five Small Pieces Op.9 (1927) [5:14]
Five Polydynamic Pieces Op. 3 [11:11]
Cheerful Acrostics Op. 12 (1928) [4:28]
Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
Six Songs Op. 17 (1937) [13:53]
Ebony Band/Werner Herbers
Barbara Kozelj (mezzo soprano)
rec. December 2012 and January 2013, Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ, Amsterdam and Live at Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht.

Werner Herbers and the Ebony Band make a welcome return in tough economic times for ‘non mainstream’ ensembles, after having already brought us some sensational releases of Weill, Toch and Schulhoff (see review), Koffler and Regamey (see review), and their ‘Dancing’ album with a further mix of the familiar and the unknown (see review). Including no fewer than seven recording premières, Around Prague provides a rare snapshot of Prague in the 1920s and 1930s when it was a cultural hotspot which, if perhaps not quite rivalling the legendary richness of Paris, certainly offered a different flavour; mixing the cultures of central, eastern and northern Europe and generating its own subtle and not-so subtle brands of anarchy and the avant-garde.
Spread as intermezzi through the programme, Miroslav Ponc’s The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower is a suite of miniatures, their absurdist and satirical nature apparent in military caricature with a Speech from the General, and blurring musical boundaries on numerous levels. Is Ponc pillorying the modern music of his time? These fantastic little movements could certainly stand as a gesture mocking the avant-garde, but the humour is embedded in more in the theatrical gestures of ballet, a distortion of tonality and conventional sonorities stirred up through quarter-tone instruments - piano and harmonium, set against diatonic instruments and percussion. There are some unbeatable moments, often involving the more exotic instruments creeping up or down their microtonal scales. If you ever wondered how a quarter-tone harmonium sounds in comparison to one which is just ‘out of tune’ have a listen to the Polka on track 33.
Hans Aldo Schimmerling’s Six Miniatures is a gorgeous set of pieces, inhabiting the rich harmonic and lyrical worlds of Schrecker and Zemlinsky. There are unmistakable sounds from the period in this music, bass lines doubled in strong low octaves from a piano, endless melodic intertwining and tonality-defying chromaticism which all add to the multi-layered attractions of this fine work. A significant part for celeste creates a feeling of enchantment, and there is a pungent sense of nostalgia and atmospheres of heady romance in much of this music - each moment of which might have been plucked from, or be setting the scene for a remarkable imaginary opera.
Emil František Burian worked in theatre, and his Small Overture is a mixture of jazzy cosmopolitanism and sophisticated dramatic atmosphere. Despite a lack of distinctive tunes there is a little of the Kurt Weill in here, and you can imagine the thing just making it through the noisy crowd as it emerges from a sweaty orchestra pit, effectively setting the scene for an unknown production. This is followed by Burian’s song cycle About Children, which takes us away from Dada and into the more refined worlds of his teachers Suk and Foerster. Beautifully sung by Barbara Kozelj, the texts are given in Czech and German though alas not in English, but you get the general drift through the transparent nature of the music.
Alois Hába is one of the few names who might be more familiar amongst this collection, recordings of his pieces having been available from the Supraphon label for many years, with even a ‘Complete Nonets’ release played by the works’ dedicatees The Czech Nonet available if your interest has been tickled by this recording. His name is associated with the use of quarter-tones in composing, but the Nonet No. 2, Op. 41 uses a ‘Seven-note System’, in fact based on the seven medieval musical modes or scales. This results in an approachable, indeed a highly attractive idiom, with plenty of rhythmic and melodic contrast. The work’s frequently pithy technical demands are taken by the Ebony Band members in their stride.
Miroslav Ponc’s compositional voice comes into its own in a sequence of works framed by two movements of The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower. His Five Small Pieces for cello and piano is an unexpected masterpiece, the sheer range of effects from the piano taking us way beyond what one might expect from such an instrumentation and indeed such a title. This is the kind of piece which could easily be turned into an incredible concertante work with orchestra, but the way the original is written already delivers so much that such a task would be risky indeed. The Five Polydynamic Pieces are generated from mathematical calculations, and while there is inevitably a strong serial feel to many passages there is always a sense of enquiry into sonority and a powerful feel for drama, swiftly lifting each piece away from its academic sounding origins. Cheerful Acrostics takes the letters of the names of people who supported Ponc, the work written in gratitude for their help. An academic approach is once again turned into a delightful sequence of miniatures for piano, including dances and some remarkably concise but deeply explored moods.
Viktor Ullmann is another composer from this interbellum period whose name has become familiar through numerous recent recordings. Originally for piano and voice, his Six Songs Op. 17 was orchestrated for the Ebony Band in order to recreate something of a missing work, the Seven Serenades, which is known to have been performed in 1930 but, as with so many of Ullmann’s scores, is now lost. This is a remarkably effective and stunningly idiomatic version of the cycle by composer Geert van Keulen, which strikingly extends and heightens the colours and dramatic range of the original.
I’ve not gone into the fascinating and not always tragic lives of the composers here since they are outlined in the notes for this release, and I wouldn’t want to put a spoiler out for each coup and discovery which appears in this pioneering programme. As is common with the Ebony Band’s releases, live performances are mixed with studio recordings, but each work is produced with care and the quality of each is consistently high. Nicely packaged and well documented as usual by Channel Classics, this will go very well alongside all of the other Ebony Band releases which, as an inquisitive and open minded collector, you must surely already have acquired.

Dominy Clements