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Hanns EISLER (1898-1962)
Deutsche Sinfonie (1935-1958)
Ursula Targler (soprano), Hanna Fahlbusch-Wald (mezzo-soprano), Michael Ebbecke (baritone), Jaroslav Štajnc (bass), Gottfried Neuner and Christian Schramm (speakers)
Wiener Jeunesse Choir
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/GŁnther Theuring
Rec. live, 16 March 1989, Konzerthaus, Vienna
German text included.
CAPRICCIO C5428 [66:41]

I used to think of Hanns Eisler – having heard only a little of his music – as a kind of poor man’s Kurt Weill, involved with communism and Bertolt Brecht but without the gifts of his more famous contemporary. He turns out to be a good deal more interesting. He was one of Schoenberg’s first pupils, along with the, again, more famous Berg and Webern. He adopted the serial method, which he used in his own way. but he was also deeply committed to the communist cause, as indeed were many artists and intellectuals at the time. His commitment was much deeper than that of Weill, who indeed stopped collaborating with Brecht, with whom Eisler continued to work all his life. He wrote songs and other material for communist organisations as well as film music. On the arrival of the Nazis, Eisler, who was Jewish as well as communist, left and travelled widely until settling in the USA in 1938. He would probably have stayed there permanently except that he fell foul of the Committee for un-American Activities and returned to Europe. He ended up in East Germany but kept his Austrian passport and so was still able to travel. In East Germany he was honoured but also thwarted and indeed abandoned a plan to write an opera on Faust because of official opposition.

The Deutsche Sinfonie is his largest work. It had a long gestation, as he began work on it in 1935 and did not complete it until 1958, not long before his death. However, most of it was written in the 1930s and 1940s. It has been called more of a cantata than a symphony, as it is largely vocal. There are fourteen sections, only two of which last longer than a few minutes. The texts are mostly from Brecht but also from Ignazio Silone (not credited as he was out of favour) and Julius Bittner. The themes of the poems are those of left-wing writing of the 1930s: poverty and hardship, the struggle of the working class and the cruelties of the fascists. He originally thought of calling it his Concentration Camp Symphony.

Although most of the work is vocal, there are three instrumental sections, which form a kind of symphony within a symphony, and which could, in theory, be played on their own. The third of these is a long culminating Allegro, originally intended as the finale of the work, though Eisler at the last minute added a short Epilogue. Within the work there are also two smaller cantatas, a Peasant Cantata and a Workers’ Cantata.

The idiom will cause no concern to those familiar with German and Austrian music of the time. It is twelve-tone but not aggressively dissonant. Indeed, it often suggests Mahler or Berg, or non-serial composers such as Zemlinsky and Schreker. There is some of Schoenberg’s angular lyricism but also a strong sense of rhythm with numerous marches, including funeral marches. The vocal writing is clear and strong and offers many opportunities both to the soloists and to the choir. There is also an amazing movement in which two speakers whisper in dialogue. There is a good deal of variety, and only in the Workers’ Cantata, at nearly sixteen minutes the longest section, did I feel the tension sag.

This performance is an old one, dating from 1989. I don’t think it has been issued previously, but it was worth digging up from the vaults as it is very good and the work is not often performed or recorded. Capriccio have issued a number of other recordings of Eisler so this must have been an informed choice. The conductor GŁnther Theuring was not a household name but specialised in works of this kind and leads an assured performance. Of the soloists I particularly liked the mezzo-soprano Hanna Fahlbusch-Wald but the others are all competent. The chorus was enthusiastic and precise, the orchestral playing very secure. The recording was made at a live performance but you would not know, and no applause is included. The sleeve note, in German and English, has a good deal of useful information about the work and biographies of the performers. The text is included but in German only, which is rather inconvenient, though you can find translations of some of the numbers on the internet. There are a few other recordings but I think most of them come without translations and some without texts. This is a strange, uneven but impressive work, a document of its time but also more than that. I was very pleased to get to know it.

Stephen Barber

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