Gesänge des Orients (Songs of The Orient)

One of the central tropes in German poetry from the eighteenth century onwards was its sustained fascination with all things connected to the Orient. The lure of the mythical and exotic East, vaguely allied to different countries and regions that were geographically far removed from Central Europe, cast an almost transcendental spell over generations of important writers. By the 1830s Oriental Studies flourished in several German universities and a number of prominent academics were engaged upon translating into German vast swathes of poetry from the East. Orientalism also increasingly caught the popular imagination through clothes, décor and furnishings. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, preoccupations with the exotic noticeably shifted eastwards from Germany to Austria. Given the febrile artistic climate in the turn- of-the-century Vienna, it is hardly surprising that composers living and working there also succumbed to the fashion for Orientalism. [Erik Levi]

Supressed music (or ‘Entartete Musik’ or ‘Verfemte Musik’), music and musicians smeared by the Nazis’ dark, ideologically-motivated hatred, has developed into an artificial genre of its own, throwing together composers of completely different musical backgrounds and, it must be said, varying degrees of quality, into the same bucket. This must change. We risk missing the true qualities, nuances and pedigree of individual composers’ voices, as well as the cultural preoccupations that united them (as in the case of this CD, the common fascination in the early twentieth century with translations of Chinese and Persian poetry). The deliberate inclusion of Richard Strauss (whose political allegiances are questionable), is because I wish the listener to hear beyond the names, beyond the painful historical facts and savour the incredible sound world created by these musical cousins. It is my wish that, by presenting all of these neglected composers as equals, we can begin to restore them to their rightful place, where they belonged all along, in our collective musical Consciousness. [Simon Wallfisch]



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Towards the end of the 19th century, a German fascination with Oriental culture had spread to the creatively febrile atmosphere of Austria, and in particular its capital, Vienna. While the most celebrated 19th-century example was undoubtedly Goethe’s cycle of lyric poems entitled West-Eastern Divan, in turn-of-the-century Vienna it was the poet Hans Bethge’s collection of translations The Chinese Flute of 1907 that really set the ball rolling, most famously providing the texts for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Other composers responded readily and fruitfully to the new availability of translated Persian, Indian and Chinese poetry, among them Schoenberg, Webern and Zemlinsky, but also the composers represented on this fascinating new disc from baritone Simon Wallfisch. Among them are the Czech composers Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas, whose lives were brutally ended in the Auschwitz gas chambers; and the Austrians Hans Gál and Egon Wellesz, who left Austria after Hitler’s Anschluss and relocated to Britain where they both forged notable academic careers (Wellesz in Oxford, Gál in Edinburgh). Together with their younger contemporary Gottfried von Einem (who remained in Austria but continued composing in a defiantly cosmopolitan style, ran foul of the Gestapo and courageously protected a Jewish fellow musician in Berlin), they might all be easily covered by the umbrella term of ‘Entartete Musik’ (degenerate music) now routinely used for collections of music once condemned by the Nazi regime.

However Simon Wallfisch, whose own family members experienced the horrors of Auschwitz, eschews such labels in favour of a more intriguingly thematic approach which allows him to include three Bethge settings from the op.77 Gesänge des Orients by Richard Strauss, thus locating all these works within the broader cultural context of which they should rightly be a part. ‘I wish,’ he writes, ‘to hear beyond the names, beyond the painful historical facts, and savour the incredible sound world created by these musical cousins [...] to restore them to their rightful place, where they belonged all along, in our collective musical consciousness.’

With the help of superbly sensitive, evocative and magically detailed piano accompaniments from Edward Rushton, Wallfisch, ever alive to the nuances of the German and Czech texts, triumphantly succeeds. He captures both the fascination with the Orient that fired these composers’ imaginations, and also that haunting sense of ‘otherness’, of unbelonging, that must have spoken to many of them all too directly. From exuberant drinking songs to intense, lonely epitaphs for lost love, from mysterious sisters to metaphorical nature pictures, doesn’t put a foot wrong.

The standout items here are the complete cycles by Ullmann, Haas and the immediately post-war von Einem, all of which mix eastern atmosphere, personal pain and early 20th-century popular culture in a variety beguiling mixtures. Von Einem himself remains best known for his opera Dantons Tod, premiered in Salzburg at the time of the two cycles recorded here, and Wallfisch’s performances are important additions to the discography, as are his Ullmann and Haas. He makes an excellent case, too, for rarities by Wellesz and Gál, the former exuding Schoenbergian expressionism and serialism, the latter revelling in late-Romantic harmonies that provide a link with the almost operatic opulence of the Strauss songs which, partly thank to the daring harmonies of ‘Huldigung’ (Adoration), don’t sit quite as uneasily among the other works here as you might suppose.

Alongside Wallfisch’s own intelligently argued personal note, there’s an excellent article on the composers and music by Erik Levi, and full English translations of the song texts. The songs themselves are tracked not individually but in groups, which encourages (like the programming itself) a more integrated way of listening to these absorbing works. Outstanding in every respect, and one of the most interesting lieder discs of the year so far.   Europadisc

Artistically, the songs presented on this CD are united by the fact that they use texts that reflect the deep fascination of translations of Chinese and Persian poetry in early 20th century Vienna. Of course, the romantic enthusiasm for the mythical East extends further into the past, like Goethe's great cycle West-Eastern Diwan - inspired by the Persian poet Hafis from the 13th century. Occupied in Vienna, the World's Fair of 1873 with its exhibits of Ottoman, Japanese and Islamic art also created a great interest in "exotic" cultures.

The British baritone Simon Wallfisch, however, wants to do more with his clever program: namely the randomly mixed genre "degenerate or suppressed music", in which composers with completely different backgrounds and with different talents were lumped together. "That's why we find ourselves in the CD beside songs of about Ullmann, Gál or Wellesz also the songs of the Orient Op. 77 by Richard Strauss, so that the listener can plunge into the incredible sound worlds of all these musical cousins. This approach is great because it scrutinizes the parallels in musical quality without forgetting, of course, in this context, even a relevant historical event.

The vita of the singer is characterized by personal experience: his grandmother, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, has survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Wallfisch therefore gives lectures on anti-Semitism and accompanies his grandmother, who appears as admirable witness and Auschwitz survivor at various events or on television. As a musician, Wallfisch has worked intensively on the work and personal destinies of the composers Egon Wellesz and Hans Gál, both of whom escaped to Britain in 1938, as well as Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas, who were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in 1944. Wallfisch also attaches great importance to Gottfried von Einem, who helped pianist Konrad Latte as the sole survivor of his family to survive the war years unrecognized in Berlin. Von Einem was then active under the wing of Herbert von Karajan as a répétiteur at the Berlin State Opera. Wallfisch is a curator at the International Center for Suppressed Music (ICSM), dedicated to the discovery and re-performance of out-of-date composers and musicians.

Simon Wallfisch has several roles, he succeeds as a singer and cellist, sometimes the cellist accompanies the singer himself on his instrument. On the new album he features Edward Rushton as an attentive pianist who accompanies him on this exotic and musically rich journey. The Songbook of Hafez, Op. 30 by Viktor UIlmann are the eight Hafis songs Op. 5 by Gottfried von Einem (1947). Viktor Ullmann's Chinese Songs (1943) are followed by four songs on ancient Chinese poems by Pavel Haas (1944). Gottfried von Einem has in 1948 five songs from the Chinese Op. 8 written. Next come Pavel Haas with Chinese songs (1919), Egon Wellesz with songs from the foreign Op. 15 (1913) and Richrad Strauss' Gesänge des Orient Op. 77 (1928) to be heard. The CD concludes with five songs Op. 33 by Hans Gál (1917-1921).  Ingobert Waltenberger, Feuilleton Scout Online Magazine

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