Stefan Wolpe (1902-72) is a composer whose name elicits confusion, some fear, and a great deal of misunderstanding. An escapee from Germany, a committed Socialist, and an ardent devotee of the Second Viennese School, he spent a great portion of his life fully dedicated to the idea of bringing the higher and more idealistic aspirations of the artist to the common needs of the people. This looks today like an exercise in intellectual isometrics, of working against oneself in order to promote something unattainable, yet a whole philosophical school composed of mainly German ex-patriots were promoting precisely this vision: Feininger, Walter Gropius, Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, and others whom Wolpe either befriended, studied with, or both. He learned to compose “popular” songs in a firmly tonal idiom while in Germany in his work as an involved anti-Fascist. Yet it was the twelve-tone row that sang most brilliantly in his heart, and upon his arrival in the United States he was firmly associated with the most modern music of the age.
Age, however, tends to soften the impact of almost everything, and today we react a little less fiercely to the supposed fierceness of the serialist school. Who among dedicated classical music listeners regards Le Sacre as even vaguely atonal these days? Do we riot in the streets when Webern appears? Hardly. Listening to this album of Wolpe songs, I was thinking as to what he would be thinking now that his songs are really no more “modern” sounding than the tone rows of Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety.
Not that his music can’t still pose thorny reminders of a questionable musical age gone by, but his songs, perhaps the true windows into his soul, reveal an essence to the man that perhaps his more celebrated works do not. I can’t cover them all here, but suffice it to say that the Yiddish Folk Songs and the Songs from the Hebrew display a master at work, formerly to the acclaim of the popular general public, and latterly to the extension and development of the Hebrew Art Song.
The other cycles are all worthy and hold varying degrees of interest, but no one even remotely interested in the music of this elusive and hard-to-peg composer will want to be without this release. The sound is a little strained at times; I noticed, for the first time ever on my system, that louder portions of some of the male-singer songs caused no small amount of distortion in my speakers—quite unusual for a digital recording. And Mr. Mason particularly sings without the needed clarity and sharpness of diction in certain places, most notably the Einstein piece. But the rest is fine, and one certainly must commend Bridge for its dedication to the composer. By the way, the Wolpe Society has an excellent website, www.wolpe.org.
— Steven Ritter