Robert FÜRSTENTHAL (1920-2016)
Songs and Ballads of Life and Passing
Rafael Fingerlof (baritone)
Sascha El Mouissi (piano)
rec. May 2016, Studio C, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0354 [61:01]
There is a fascinating background story to these songs. Robert Fürstenthal was born in Vienna in 1920 into a Jewish family. He played the piano and was a frequent guest in the home of Franziska Trinczer, his first cousin – and his first love. He composed a few songs, some dedicated to Franziska. He managed to leave Austria in 1939 and via London he arrived in the USA. There he joined the US Army and served in Europe during the war. After the war he returned to the US, married and had a son. He worked as an accountant and advanced quickly. The marriage was a failure but he never found another love until he found out that Franziska, now Françoise, lived in Boston and had a successful career herself. They met again in 1973 and one of the first things Françoise asked was: “Do you still compose?” But he hadn’t written a single note since they separated almost 35 years earlier. But the reunion resulted in a steady stream of compositions, not only songs – about 160! – but also some forty chamber music works. Some of his songs were performed in the USA but it was a long time before they found their way to the recording studio. In May 2016 the present twenty songs were set down in Vienna. Robert and Françoise – they married in 1974 – were not present at the sessions but they were happy that some of Robert’s music had eventually been recorded for posterity Sadly, Robert Fürstenthal passed away on 16 November 2016, aged 96, before the disc was issued.
It is interesting to know that Robert Fürstenthal had no formal musical training, but he had an instinctive musicality and he had learnt from good models, primarily Hugo Wolf, but one can find traces of other leading Lieder composers as well: Schubert, even Brahms. This does not necessarily imply that his music is derivative, but at a blindfold test many listeners would probably mention Wolf as the main inspiration. For someone composing songs from the 1970s and onwards, this may seem a surprising choice of model, but for Fürstenthal, as an emigré, when he was still in his late teens, that musical language was part of his upbringing, the flavour of an Austria he had had to leave behind. Most of the songs on this disc are permeated by melancholy, understandably considering his loss of his roots, and the texts are also from past generations of Austro-German poets: Hans Bethge, best known for his translations of old Chinese poetry, some of which constitute the texts of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, librettist for several of Richard Strauss’ operas – all three born in the mid-1870s – Josef Weinheber, somewhat younger and perhaps a surprising choice for Fürstenthal, since he was a noted follower of Nazism – while Josef von Eichendorff (1788 – 1857) is the most popular German poet set to music by, among many others, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wolf, Richard Strauss and Reger. His poetry is, someone said, “music itself”.
Fürstenthal’s chromatic writing is not always easily assimilated at first acquaintance. Like Wolf’s, his songs open up slowly and some of them feel bleak and forbidding before one comes to terms with them. Many are slow, dark and sad but there are also dramatically intense songs, with dynamic piano parts, ‘Aber ich she dich ja nicht’ (tr. 2) a telling example, ‘Es braust mein Blut’ (tr. 7) another. Both are settings of Bethge. One of the most touching is the Eichendorff setting ‘Auf meines Kindes Tod’ (tr. 8). The simple folksong like melody contains echoes of Schubert but the atmosphere is if anything Mahlerian (Kindertotenlieder).
Two of the songs, probably rather late, are settings of James Joyce (tr. 18 & 19), and they are very different from the rest: sparse, dissonant; they might be influenced by another Austrian, Schönberg. Whether it is the language or the time of composing that governs this is hard to say, but they do stand out.
Two songs are also settings of Fürstenthal’s own poems. ‘Einmal’ (tr. 4) breathes total harmony, while the concluding ‘An F’ is lovingly comforting. F is without doubt Françoise and the poem reads, in Martin Anderson’s sensitive translation:
Do not weep, do not weep,
If one day I should die,
Wherever I might go,
You will not be alone,
For my gaze will hold you.
If I see you from the gardens of Heaven.
It has been a been a privilege to get to know these songs and I will certainly return to them when out of reviewing duties. The young baritone Rafael Fingerlos is a congenial interpreter of them with his beautiful lyric voice and his sense for nuances. He is expertly accompanied by Sascha El Mouissi. There are valuable biographical notes by Françoise Farron-Fürstenthal, an illuminating article by producer Michael Haas on ‘Exile, Identity and Music’ and a musical analysis of the songs by Professor Erik Levi.
A fascinating insight into the world of Robert Fürstenthal.
It is a privilege to get to know these songs, the work of an unknown composer with a touching story …see Full Review
1. Vol. I: No. 8 Liebeslied (Josef Weinheber) [4:30]
2. Vol. II: No. 10 Aber ich seh dich ja nicht (Hans Bethge) [2:07]
3. Vol. IV: No. 5 Reiselied (Hugo von Hofmansthal) [1:50]
4. Vol V: No. 4 Einmal (Robert Fürstenthal) [2:32]
5. Vol. III: No. 4 Der Tag der weissen Chrisanthemen (Rainer Maria Rilke) [2:14]
16 Lieder und Balladen vom Leben und Vergehen
6. No. 14 Herbst (Rainer Maria Rilke) [3:33]
7. No. 8 Es braust mein Blut (Hans Bethge) [1:52]
8. No. 11 Auf meines Kindes Tod (Joseph von Eichendorff) [3:08]
9. No. 9 Ergebung (Joseph von Eichendorff) [4:24]
10. No. 7 Seeliges Vergessen ( Joseph von Eichendorff) [3:03]
11. No. 2 Der Abend ist mein Buch (Rainer Maria Rilke) [3:23]
12. No. 16 Schlussstück (Rainer Maria Rilke) [3:24]
13. Vol. 1: No. 3 Auf einer goldenen Flöte (Joseph Weinheber) [4:02]
14. Vol. III: No. 5 Advent (Rainer Maria Rilke) [1:22]
15. Vol. I: No. 5 Notturno (Josef Weinheber) [3:24]
16. Vol. I: No. 10 Terzinen über Vergänglichkeit (Hugo von Hofmannsthal) [4:41]
17. Vol. III: No. 6 Träume (Rainer Maria Rilke) [2:59]
Songs after Poems by James Joyce
18. Vol. III: No. 7 Sleep Now [2:48]
19. Vol. II: No. 1 O Cool [2:34]
20. Vol. VI: No. 1 An F (Robert Fürstenthal) [3:00]