HANNS EISLER: Ernste Gesang; Lieder with Piano on poems by Brecht; Sonata No. 1 – Matthias Goerne, baritone/ Thomas Larcher, p./ Ensemble Resonanz – Harmonia mundi HMC 902134, 54:05 *****:
Eisler (1898-1962) is a tough nut to crack; I suppose that any student of Schoenberg would be. But Eisler, who was reported to be the Second Viennese School master’s favorite student, did not remain so. Indeed, from his beginnings he was a nonconformist of the highest degree, moving from his native Leipzig to the Vienna of his father’s birth, the philosopher Rudolf Eisler, and fell under the spell of Schoenberg’s emergent 12-tone system right at the moment that system was coming into fruition in the years 1919-23, the same years Eisler was a student with the master. But when the younger composer began questioning exactly for whom this music was being written, tensions developed and generational and incompatible world views came to the front, never to be resolved.
Truly there were many things in Eisler’s life that would never be resolved, as is so often the case with those who hate conformity to the point of their becoming conformists to anything outside of the mainstream. From the tortured doctrine of the Nazis which he escaped, to the comparatively relaxed and peaceful hills of California where he spent a number of years with his pal Bertolt Brecht, he ended up being seduced (as were so many) by the doctrines of Karl Marx and embraced a communism that seemed an ideal answer to the questions of fairness and humanity with which he always was concerned. But the reality of his philosophy took a dim and grim turn when he returned to East Berlin, the Germany of his birth, yet far from the county he knew as a child. It seems that Communism as practiced was far from what he envisioned in theory, and he was never to acclimate himself to these realities.
Perhaps more than any modern composer I can think of, Eisler’s music reflects to an uncomfortable degree the times he lived in, or more accurately, his perception of those times. This does not mean that his music is unattractive; on the contrary I find these pieces miracles of self-expression undiluted by any sort of pretense; Eisler bears his soul for all to feel, and the monumental thing about his work is that we are able to sense what he is talking about. We may not agree with him, but as an art representative of one person’s true ideals there can be no more sincerity in all of music. The early Piano Sonata was quite a sensation at first, being dedicated to Schoenberg and written in the free atonal style that his teacher’s Opus 11 was projecting. It won the Artist’s Prize for the City of Vienna and received multiple performances all over the world in major cities. Thomas Larcher, who serves as pianist on this disc, gives a rousing reading of a work that needs a resurgence of performances.
The Hollywood Songbook is the title that Eisler gave to a compendium of lieder written while he was working on film scores and various orchestral pieces in order to “pass the time”. It passes quickly when listening to these vignettes; pseudo-Romantic and hinting of Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf while providing cracks and crevices that one falls into constantly because of misled expectations. These pieces are marvelous, full of life, color, and creativity. The Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs) are far more, well, serious, and take a different tone altogether. The pieces reflect the fractured relationship he had with a very tightly controlled political system on his return to East Berlin, showing a complex love-hate relationship that would never be resolved. They still belie a Romantic sensibility but one with twisted motives and constantly realistic reportage that show a man at war with himself and his county’s failings. But the brilliant orchestration, and again the sincerity of the music places one in a rather helpless situation of not wanting to hear about such things but feeling compelled to listen, and even astounded by the beauty of it all.
Matthias Goerne is the perfect voice for this dated yet ageless music, and performs with great understanding. The young Ensemble Resonanz play like they lived through the times themselves, and the recording at the Teldex Studio Berlin couldn’t be better. Harmonia mundi’s typical texts, translations, and glossy booklet round out a fine production, as usual. [To my mind some of Eisler’s music is a sort of continuation of the work of Kurt Weill, and they go together like Bruckner and Mahler…Ed.]