SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

HUGO DISTLER: Harpsichord Concerto; Stage Music to “King Bluebeard” – Huguette Dreyfus, harpsichord/ German Bach Soloists/ Martin Stephanie, cond./ Katharina Wingen, sop./ Stefan Livland, tenor/ New Brandenburg Philharmonic/ Stefan Malzew – Musicaphon

A life self-cut tragically short still exudes the fragrance of some top-notch works.

Published on December 12, 2012

HUGO DISTLER: Harpsichord Concerto, Op. 14; Stage Music to “King Bluebeard” – Huguette Dreyfus, harpsichord/ German Bach Soloists/ Martin Stephanie, cond./ Katharina Wingen, sop./ Stefan Livland, tenor/ New Brandenburg Philharmonic/ Stefan Malzew – Musicaphon multichannel SACD M 56860, 60:09 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

Hugo Distler (1908-42) attended the Leipzig Conservatory from 1927-31, eventually ending up working towards a degree in composition and organ. The death of his grandfather, largely responsible for financing his studies, forced him to leave school and seek other opportunities. In 1931 he found a part-time job as organist and choirmaster, but his fortunes took a turn for the better with the publication of his Opus 7 Choral Passion in 1933. His three positions towards the end of his tragically short life were as lecturer at the Württemberg Hochschule für Musik in Stuttgart (1937), teaching and conducting at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin (1940), and conductor of the State and Cathedral Choir (1942). His music was mostly in the choral realm, significant and in some cases widespread, while his instrumental music was not as prolific. But the compositions on this disc show them to be anything but insignificant.

Distler was a passionate and sensitive soul who finally succumbed to the horrible pressures of the time, provoked by the catalyst of the bombing of Lubeck, itself a response by the Allies to the destruction of Coventry Cathedral. He became depressed from the deaths of friends, overwork, and the threat of conscription into the German army. The news of his brother’s death in Russia and mounting political pressure forced him to commit suicide in Berlin.

These two instrumental works are not reflective of that sad ending or of the difficulties of his life in general. I have always been suspect of modern day harpsichord concertos (except the Falla, though even that one takes a lot of warm-up) but Distler combines a thoroughly modern sentiment with an instrument whose sound seems land-locked in the past to make a concerto of melodic delight and rigorous construction, culminating in wonderful set of variations on the hymn tune “The Fine Rider” (“Ei du feiner Reiter”). The work is truly a marvel and deserving of a wide following. Originally there were apparently four movements instead of the three given here if we are to believe the notes which inform us that this piece was intended as the third movement but appeared in print only in 1990. As is the work is a full 30 minutes and feels long enough. At any rate, this recording, made in 1964 but remastered from analog to DSD in 2003 appeared way before legendary harpsichordist Huguette Dreyfus ever saw the addition. You won’t believe how good the surround sound is; the original tapes must have been in superb condition.

The incidental music for “King Bluebeard” might seem an odd coupling, but in fact the piece takes several sections from the Harpsichord Concerto and revamps them either by orchestration or transformation of the different musical contexts. The piece was the result of a commission upon his moving to Berlin in 1940 by director Jürgen Fehling, who had known the composer since his time in Lubeck. Named after Ludwig Tieck’s Knight’s Bluebeard, the work took on serious political overtones which were quite risky at the time. After a dispute between director and theater manager, the piece was waylaid and not performed again until 2002, with reconstructions of the parts taken from the collection that the composer’s widow gave to the publisher. The music is very listener friendly while remaining dramatically challenging and very engaging. This time the 2002 PCM remastering into DSD is also effective, while the performances of both works leave nothing to be desired. Musicaphon is committed, rightly so, to this composer, making this the fifth release in its series.

—Steven Ritter

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