Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
A superb reference, now and for the future.
Imagine if you were transported back in time, and transplanted to a place where you could converse with J.S. Bach, Schubert, or Mahler. What would you wish you’d brought with you? Aside from desiring an ability to speak their language, I’ll bet most of us would deeply regret not having some kind of recording equipment, something to stand witness to the words of these great names from the past. This, the first of Cybele’s new
Künstler im Gespräch series, addresses this need for deepening our knowledge of composers by introducing recordings of interviews and
talks which have direct relevance and closeness of context, and which would otherwise remain as dry printed texts or simply remain hidden in archival obscurity.
I requested this release with a small amount of trepidation, advising the nice people at Cybele that my German probably wasn’t up to coping with the large amounts of spoken text in this release. They trusted me however, and I’ll come to those fascinating talking voices later. My first impression was one of pleasant surprise - the booklet being filled not only with historical photos from the Hartmann family album and elsewhere, but also with plenty of familiar names and faces from the Dutch music scene, many of whom I’ve encountered in my day job at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague.
While this release is weighted on the uniqueness of the spoken element, Cybele have also cleverly created a programme which gives us the ‘complete works with string quartet’, so even if you have your doubts about being able to follow chunks of German interviews and talks there is plenty of excellent music making into which you can get your teeth.
A great deal is explained in the highly informative booklet notes, and with the
1st String Quartet we immediately find ourselves entering the serious world in which Hartmann found himself after the rise of the Nazi party in 1933. This was the first work written entirely after the Nazi party had come to power, and Hartmann’s defiant attitude is expressed in quotations from Jewish music. Some analysis and printed quotations are given in the booklet, but the impression left by this piece is of strongly felt and often impassioned expression. There are many remarkable moments in what can be seen both as a rather compact, and also a robustly substantial work. 21 minutes is neither long nor short for a string quartet, but hardly a moment is left without its own function in terms of expressive intensity or poignant release. The central
con sordino movement is particularly beautiful, with some stunning close-harmony parallel chord progressions and a potent funereal atmosphere. The outer movements have their flashes of rhythmic energy, but these are often tinged with dark drama and reined in by quieter, more intimate musical developments. This is impressive music, but its display is less in extrovert technical mastery than the communication of potent messages.
The same goes for the
2nd String Quartet, written in the war-stained years of 1945-46, with some revisions done in 1947-8. This is music which has everything Shostakovich’s quartets of the same period has to offer. Each composer shares in the dark shadows cast by the human crises of the war years, in the strength of spirit in survival and a certain optimism for a better future. This comes out in the desperate intensity of much of the music, and also in literal references such as an allusion to ‘Es ist genug’ in the first movement, the Bach chorale used in Berg’s violin concerto, and a text filled with the symbolism of transition from one life to another. The large-scale central movement, marked
sehr ausdrucksvoll, presents a mournful and sometimes elegiac mood, but one filled with character and inner transformations of emotional sensation. A swift
Presto drives us home in a virtuoso carriage whose point of arrival is uncertain until the last chord.
Moving on to the musical content on disc 2, and we have two concertante works. The
Little Concertofor String Quartet and Percussion retains a little of the character of Stravinsky, as well as some of that 1920s and 1930s fleetness of touch which it shares with names such as Weill, and even Antheil. While there is plenty of rhythmic interest and a few quasi-bluesy moments, Hartmann draws short of introducing clearly recognisable jazz influences. This is however very much a piece ‘of its time’, and makes one wonder what directions Hartmann might have taken had WWII not intervened.
Chamber Concerto for Clarinet, String Quartet and String Orchestra begins with an almost pastoral feel, deceptively and deftly weaving in traces of a famous worker’s song of the time, and the character of melody to be found in Jewish music. Even the choice of solo instrument, the clarinet, might easily have been something which would have given the listener a
klezmer connection. After the sublime conclusion to the opening
Introduction, we are given a set of
Dance Variations. This has something of a relationship to Bartók and more particularly to Zoltán Kodály, to whom the work is dedicated, in the ‘feel’ of a certain folk-style in the theme. Hartmann takes the music in directions which embrace numerous eastern European elements, and maintains the Jewish song character in the achingly melancholy clarinet melody of the final slow
Fantasie. The only technical problem with this piece is that the ‘solo’ string quartet is so effectively absorbed into the string orchestra that, were it not to have been announced in the title, you would hardly realise it was there. You only really discover this is a live performance with the applause at the end. If there were any other noises during the performance I must have missed them, being 110% absorbed in a truly marvellous score.
It is fascinating to note that neither of these pieces were ever performed during the composer’s lifetime. They might easily have ended up being destroyed, as were several other manuscripts which were withdrawn as part of Hartmann’s own highly self-critical attitude. The loss of such a work as the
Chamber Concerto would indeed have been a tragedy, and we are left only guessing as to what other gems might have ended up in the flames. All of these performances are straight out of the top drawer, and all of the recordings - even that of the live
Chamber Concerto performance - are vibrant and deeply satisfying, especially in 5.0 surround.
Now to the spoken part of this release. I have to admit, my German is not good, and any time I’ve attempted to bluff by speaking Dutch in a German accent in order to fit in at Dusseldorf wedding parties I have found myself in deep trouble, unable to follow what is said by way of a reply, and leaving little waves of subtle confusion in my wake by nodding in sage ignorance at moments which subsequently turned out to have demanded further elaboration. While I know I won’t have been able to extract every nuance, the speakers from each of these various sources speak with a clarity of diction which even I could follow for short periods of intense concentration. Disc 1 has a conversation with Hartmann’s wife Elisabeth, divided up into bite-size chunks which cover a good deal of ground. A direct and intimate link to experiences of unique times and the remarkable character of her husband, Elisabeth talks about his shyness, and events such as when Hartmann buried his scores during the war. These are reminiscences on their life and times, and some key moments in Hartmann’s career. In the end, we only have a glimpse, a brief but fascinating glimpse into the past, but such nuggets are priceless. An even more valuable recording is Hartmann’s own late statement, made in 1962, where he talks about his own life, Schoenberg, his own
and opera, art and politics. Disc 3 is entirely dedicated to a conversation with Hartmann’s son, Dr. Richard P. Hartmann, led by Mirjam Wiessmann, one of the initiators of this new series. Dr. Hartmann speaks eloquently, sometimes even with some dramatic musical gestures, on his inside view of his father’s life and work from childhood through to the legacies left by having such a background. You get a real feel for the atmosphere of family life, and the relationship with some iconic names and the regard and respect with which the Hartmann name was held. It would be too much to ask for these spoken texts to be printed in what is already a well-filled booklet, but it might be an idea to put a translation on the Cybele website. Even SACD re-mastering cannot remove the historic nature of some of these tapes, but all are perfectly acceptable. Each track is given a title which indicates the main topic. These only scratch the surface however, and it is very much worth getting to grips with all of these windows into the past, many of which go beyond preconceptions one might have had on a variety of essential musical subjects.
These three discs are packaged in a chunky triple-gatefold wallet which does take a little care to handle. I’ve had discs flying across the room due to my own clumsiness when the thing flaps open, and the top page of the booklet runs the risk of being creased backwards if the case is shut in haste. Otherwise the presentation and documentation is superb, with plenty of photographic and musical illustrations, and richly detailed notes by Hanns-Werner Heister.
Of all the 20
th century composers to have been selected to launch what I hope will be a rich vein of new material, K.A. Hartmann is one of the names best suited for such an initiative. His uncompromising stance against fascism, discrimination and injustice speaks loudly enough through his music, but if anyone should be allowed the extra space to illustrate the strength of these points of view both in political and musical terms in the spoken word, then it is Karl Amadeus. In his own words, “A man, and an artist in particular, is not allowed to live day in and day out without having had something to say.”
This is the kind of document which will be a reference for scholars of the future; the irrefutable directness of speech which removes that layer of interpretative licence from biographers or editors. With superb performances and recordings of Hartmann’s powerful string quartets, and the appearance to two rarely heard concertante pieces, this is a release which I warmly recommend for collectors and music historians alike.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings no 2 by Karl Amadeus Hartmann
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1945-1946; Germany
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