Dienstag, 2. November 2021

Paul Dessau - Lieder (Orfeo)

"...art is never comfortable. Building socialism is not comfortable at all. That´s why I´m in favour of the uncomfortable." - Paul Dessau
Today I had the chance to view a documentary film about Paul Dessau. It was a pleasure to watch him as he rehearses the "Bach Variations" with the Berlin state opera orchestra, as well during classes at the Polytechnic School in Zeuthen, where he strives to teach the pupils a critical attitude. In an interview, Dessau bemoans the simplification of artistic media and elucidates the meaning and necessity of "hard sounds in an era that is not soft".  A good opportunity to repost some Paul Dessau related material...

Paul Dessau was a composer whose varied musical style was as colorful and controversial as his personal and political life. His music divulged a post-Romantic character early on and often contained Jewish themes. Although he adopted the twelve-tone system in mid-career, he had to forego use of it in many compositions owing to his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, who favored popular musical styles.

Because of increasing hostility toward Jews in Nazi Germany, he left Berlin for Paris in 1933, where he gradually grew sympathetic to left-wing politics. He moved to the United States, settling first in New York (1939), then in Hollywood (1943), where he composed film scores and shared the camaraderie of Arnold Schoenberg and Brecht. He collaborated with the latter many times over the coming years, including in songs, operas, and other vocal works. In 1946, Dessau joined the Communist Party in the United States. Two years later, he returned to Germany, to the Eastern (Communist) sector, where his twelve-tone compositions and even more mainstream works often placed him at odds with the Party arts censors.

Although Paul Dessau is probably best known for his stage, choral, and instrumental compositions, he wrote a considerable number of songs between 1914 and 1978, the year before his death.
This disc presents a fascinating cross section of songs that trace Dessau's career and stylistic evolution. The gentle post-Romantic tonality of the opening four songs, for example, give way to the hard-edged Populist style that Dessau adopted in the 1930s. Imagine Kurt Weill's twisted music-hall style without the catchy tunes, and you get Dessau's François Villon settings. My favorite Dessau lied from this period is the 36-second "Porter", a harrowing Langston Hughes setting about racism that delivers a one-two punch. The "Fünf Lieder" from 1955 represent Dessau's affair with Serialism, resulting in drier accompaniments and more playful vocal lines. On the other hand, Peter Warlock or the young Benjamin Britten could have penned the strophic "Lenz Lieder" from 1950.

Dessau becomes more daring and overtly theatrical in his songs from the mid-1970s, especially a 1974 Heine triptych for unaccompanied mezzo-soprano. A group of children's songs with texts by Bertolt Brecht require sheets of paper to be spread across the piano strings, resulting in a zither-like effect. Two brief Heine songs from 1976 and 1978 bring Dessau full circle to the lyrical style of his youth. The performers make these songs come alive, and take care to make the texts clear without recourse to exaggeration. Their voices complement each other. Baritone Dietrich Henschel's storytelling aplomb makes a nice foil to Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir's soubrette-like timbre. Warmth and dramatic heft characterize Stella Doufexis' ample mezzo. And let's not overlook Axel Bauni's alert, colorful handling of the piano parts! Anyone interested in exploring the byways of 20th century German lieder will by glad to own this excellently recorded disc.

Paul Dessau - Lieder
(192 kbps, front cover included)

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