Monday 8 September 2014

Hartmann: Simplicius Simplicissimus

Karl Amadeus Hartmann - Simplicius Simplicissimus
Karl Amadeus Hartmann Simplicius Simplicissimus; Juliane Banse, Peter Marsch, Will Hartmann, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic ORchestra, Netherlands Radio Choir, Markus Stenz; Challenge Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 2 2014
Star rating: 4.0

New recording of Hartmann's opera to complement his symphonies on Challenge Classics

I first came across the composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann indirectly when I was a student and the Halle Orchestra played John McCabe's Hartmann Variations. At the time Hartmann as a composer was still rather elusive and unknown, and since then the situation has only gradually improved. Challenge Classics has issued all of Harmann's eight symphonies. Now this new disc from them of his opera Simplicius Simplicissimus is a highly welcome sighting of Hartmann's major operatic work. Markus Stenz conducts the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Netherlands Radio Choir with soloists Juliane Banse, Peter Marsch and Will Hartmann.

Hartmann was born in 1905 in Munich and initially wrote in a neo-classical style with jazz influences, but the coming of the Nazis wrought extreme changes on his style. Personally he went into what he termed internal exile, withdrawing from public life, and his music became more serious. Hartmann's opera Simplicius Simplicissimus dates originally from between 1934 and 1936. Based on Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's 17th century novel about the 30 Years War, the opera was designed to explicitly satirise the Nazis. Mixing music with spoken dialogue, stylised, rather theatrical and not a little didactic, the work seems to have been in the same genre as some of Bertolt Brecht's Lehrstücke some of which had music written for them (Der Jasager of 1930 had music by Kurt Weill, Der Ozeanflug of 1927 had music by Weill and Hindemith). Hatmann wrote his own libretto, with contributions from his teacher Hermann Scherchen. The work was for chamber orchestra, and wasn't actually premiered until 1948. 

In the 1950's Hartmann revised the piece, removing the direct reference to the Nazis and making it more general, and Hartmann also re-orchestrated it for full orchestra. This revision substantially increased the work's solidity, with a new overture inspired by Prokofiev and other orchestral interludes. Hartmann removed the spoken dialogue, setting some of it to music, but kept a spoken narrator role and there is also a sprechchor where the first act concludes with a musical number in which the chorus chants the words. The result is still varied and stylised, with melodrama and an extensive dance section on the final act. It mixes genres and styles, to achieve a synthesis which has a serious point.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Hans Werner Henze in 1957
Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Hans Werner Henze in 1957
Hartmann makes explicit reference to other composers in the music. The overture is an homage to Prokofiev, the first Entracte includes a choral by Bach and other contemporary composers are referred to or implied, particularly contemporaries whose work was banned by the Nazis. This is not a naturalistic piece, despite the musical changes wrought by Hartmann's revisions it is still like a Lehrstücke. The intention is didactic rather than natural, requiring the listener to think and consider.

The piece is in three acts. In act one, the rather dim Shepherd boy Simplicius Simplicissimus (Juliane Banse) is warned not to let the wolf get the sheep, though he has no idea what a wolf is. When the mercenary (Landsknecht, sung by Ashley Holland) appears Simplicius wonders if he is the wolf, but he asks directions to Simplicius's village. The mercenaries kill all of the villagers leaving only Simplicius. One metaphor which is mentioned here and is important in the opera is the image of the tree, with the king and aristocracy at the top and the peasants at the bottom. In act two, Simplicius takes refuge with the hermit (Will Hartmann) who teaches Simplicius how to live. At the end, the Hermit dies and Simplicius has to dig the Hermit's grave and buries him. For the last act, Simplicius is at the court of the governor, shocked by the licentious and sexual behaviour and the way the aristocrats treat the women of the lower classes. Simplicius is appointed the Governor's jester. Finally, Simplicius recalls the tree and understands the Governor's place near the top. At the end the poor finally rebel and march on the Governor's court, killing everyone except Simplicius.

Hartmann's writing is lyrical but complex. His lighter jazzier sections, such as the dances at the opening of act three, recall Weill's German theatre music, but Hartmann's vocal writing and longer, more complex orchestral passages evoke his contemporary Hindemith.

Juliane Banse impresses in the role of Simplicius, singing with aplomb, coping well with the technical demands and keeping a certain naivety throughout. By the sound of it, this is a tricky role to bring off as you balance the need to sing complex music with the element of simplicity but Banse is finely rapturous in the lyric passages.

Ashley Holland makes a virile sounding Landsknecht, with vigorous dialogue in act one and on his reappearance in act three. Will Hartmann is the Hermit, singing with an intense, high tension feel to his voice which suits the elderly Hermit. Peter Marsch is the Governor and the Captain (Hauptman) is Michael Eder. These two have great fun with the lighter items in act three. Kristof Kolrek is the farmer who expounds the metaphor of the tree in act one, whilst Harry Peeters is the speaker.

Markus Stenz conducts with aplomb and quite a bit of love, and is rewarded with a highly characterful performance from the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

The disc comes with a good article about the opera and its genesis, but the libretto is only in German, with an English synopsis.

Simplicius Simplicissimus was recorded in 1990's with the Bavarian Radio Symphony though this recording seems only available on import, and more recently the original version was recorded in 2009 by Ulf Schirmer and the Munchner Rundfunkorchester with Camilla Nylund in the title role.

Hartmann's opera is an important document in 20th century music and has been poorly represented on disc. This new version, recorded live, is an opportunity to hear it in a vivid modern recording. On repeated listening, I came to love its quirky combination of humour, satire and intense seriousness with Hartmann's many references in his music becoming one with the work.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905 - 1963) - Simplicius Simplicissimus (1934-36 / 1957) [85.01]
Simpliciu Simplicissimus - Juliane Banse (soprano)
Einsiedel (Hermit) - Will Hartmann (tenor)
Gouverneur - Peter Marsch (tenor)
Landsknecht - Ashley Holland (baritone)
Bauer (Farmer) - Kirstof Klorek (bass-baritone)
Hauptmann - Michael Elder (bass)
Speaker - Harry Peters
Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Markus Stenz (conductor)
Recorded live at Concertgebouw, Amsterdam 2012-13

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