Tuesday 18 September 2018

Riveting and remarkable: Anna Prohaska & Eric Schneider in An der Front:

Anna Prohaska (Photo © Holger Hage / DG)
Anna Prohaska (Photo © Holger Hage / DG)
An der Front (Behind the lines; Anna Prohaska, Eric Schneider; Herbst Gold at Schloss Esterházy Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 September 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A collage of songs presenting the ordinary man and woman's view of war creates a vividly engaging evening

Herbst Gold is a music festival which takes place in September (this year 6 to 18 September) in Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt in Austria. The schloss is, of course, best known as the work place of the composer Joseph Haydn who worked for the Princes Esterházyfor over 40 years.

Empiresaal at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt (Photo Lennard Lindner)
Empiresaal at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt (Photo Lennard Lindner)
The theme of this year's festival was Krieg und Frieden (War and Peace) and as part of this theme soprano Anna Prohaska and pianist Eric Schneider brought their programme An der Front (Behind the Lines) to Schloss Esterházy's elegant 18th century Empiresaal on Thursday 13 September 2018. It was a remarkable programme, a collage of songs from the 16th to 21st century which charted the response of the ordinary men and woman to war, as participant, follower or girl left at home. These were songs about ordinary people's thoughts and feelings, rather than national concepts.

The music covered a wide range. In the first half we moved from folksong, Scots song, Michael Cavendish, Haydn & Beethoven, through Schubert, Wolf and Rachmaninov to Ives, Roger Quiller, Hans Eisler and Wolfgang Rihm. But this wasn't about style, and differences were juxtaposed so Joseph Haydn's arrangement of the Scots song Will ye go to Flanders was almost interrupted by the cacophony of Ives' In Flanders Fields. The angular anger of Wolfgang Rihm's Der Untergang impinged on the purity of Schubert's Sir Walter Scott setting Ellens Gesang I.

In the second half, we had longer ballads starting with Liszt's remarkable scene Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher (setting Alexandre Dumas) and working through Schumann, Poulenc and Mahler, ending with a pair of passionate Kurt Weill settings of Walt Whitmann.

It was a wonderfully polyglot programme using four different languages (five if you count 16th century Scots as separate from English). It was, perhaps, remarkable to find Roger Quilter's setting of Shakespeare Fear no more the heat of the sun in this company. But Anna Prohaska is half Austrian, half British and moves between the two languages with ease, yet her Russian was beautifully liquid and her French idiomatic too. What all the performances had in common was Prohaska's intense projection of text and narrative.

 Wearing a military-style jacket and her red boots (and lipstick) projecting the only splash of colour, she looked striking. And whether singing or no, her performance was arresting, even during moments like the piano postludes she kept our attention. She is a born story-teller, and made her style fit the song, dark and vivid for Schubert's Kriegers Ahnung yet a beautifully floated line for the same composer's Ellens Gesang. Hans Eisler's Kriegslied eines Kindes (written in the 1920s) was sung with a naive edge yet was neither naive nor simple, bringing a real satiric edge to the song, whilst the three songs from Eisler's Hollywood Songbook (from the 1940s) moved from concentrated anger to highly expressive expressionistic lines.

The Liszt scena was a real rarity, it was something that he worked on both as a piece with piano and a piece with orchestra, and despite Prohaska and Schneider's passionate commitment it did rather sound as if we were listening to a piano reduction of the orchestral score without the bravura imagination of some of Liszt's piano accompaniments.

In interviews with singers, I have often talked about what it is like to sing to an audience whose members do not speak your language [see my interviews with Angelika Kirchschlager and with Benjamin Appl]. This programme was a fascinating demonstration of sheer power of communication. There were no texts and my German is no good enough to follow every word (though Prohaska's diction was superb) and I have no Russian, yet the power and emotional trajectory of her performances was palpable, you did not need every single word spelling out.

The programme was sung from memory and played without breaks between songs, each following another pell mell, with Eric Schneider manipulation the transitions in masterly manner. Schneider also did the arrangements for the folk/traditional songs, and these were a master-stroke. We opened with the German Volkslied Es geht ein dunkle Wolk' herein which segued into Beethoven's Die Trommel geruhret (Beethoven in Volkslied mode from his  incidental music to Goethe's Egmont). And the other folk/traditional songs provided pause points, but more than that the apparently simple tunes packed a real emotional punch thanks to Prohaska's highly plangent manner and almost folk-singer delivery. In an evening of highlights, My Luve's in Germanie stands out.

We finished with two songs remarkable for their passion and emotional generosity, Kurt Weill's Walt Whitman settings Beat, beat drum and Dirge for two veterans. Remarkably these come from the same period (1942/43) and the same country (USA) as Hans Eisler's Hollywood Songbook, but the two composers had travelled a very different journey from their politically engaged theatre work with Bertolt Brecht in pre-war Berlin. Anyone familiar with RVW or Holst's settings of the same Whitman poems will find Weill's emotional and neo-Broadway style so different, but in a performance like Prohaska's, no excuse was needed.

I must also comment Prohaska's partner, Eric Schneider, who manipulated the piano parts superbly, whether it be a Schumann postlude, the insistent rhythms of Eisler or the angular modernist angr of Rihm.

This was a riveting and remarkable programme, one that Anna Prohaska and Erik Schneider have developed over the last few years. I certainly hope to encounter it again.

Anna Prohaska (Photo © Holger Hage / DG)
Anna Prohaska (Photo © Holger Hage / DG)
Recommended recording:
Anna Prohaska and Erik Schneider Behind the Lines - their 2014 recording of the programme on DG. Available from Amazon.

An der Front
Anna  Prohaska and Erik Schneider
Herbst Gold 2018 - 13 September 2018
Empiresaal, Schloss Esterházy
Traditional: Es geht ein dunkle Wolk herein
Beethoven: Egmont, Op.84 - Die Trommel gerühret
Eisler: Zeitungsausschnitte, Op.11 - Kriegslied eines Kindes
Wolf: Mörike-Lieder - 5. Der Tambour
Wolf: Eichendorff Lieder - Der Soldat II
Rachmaninov: Six Romances, Op.8 - Polyubila ya na pechal' svoyu (I Have Grown Fond Of Sorrow)
Traill: My Luve's In Germanie
Haydn: Will ye Go To Flanders
Ives: Three Songs Of The War - 1. In Flanders Fields
Ives: 1, 2, 3
Ives: Three Songs Of The War - 3. Tom Sails Away
Quilter: Five Shakespeare Songs, Op.23 - 1. Fear No More The Heat O' The Sun
Eisler: The Hollywood Songbook - Panzerschlacht
Eisler: The Hollywood Songbook - Die letzte Elegie
Eisler: The Hollywood Songbook - Die Heimkehr
Cavendish: Wandring In This Place
Schubert: Schwanengesang, D.957 - Kriegers Ahnung
Schubert: Sieben Gesänge aus Walter Scotts "Fräulein vom See", D.837 - Ellens Gesang I, Op.52
Rihm: Untergang, Op.1
Liszt: Jeanne d'Arc au bucher, S.293
Schumann: Romances And Ballads, Op.49 - 1. Die beiden Grenadiere
Poulenc: Chansons villageoises - 6. Le retour du sergent
Schumann: Fünf Lieder, Op.40 - 3. Der Soldat
Mahler: Songs from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" - Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
Weill: Four Walt Whitman Songs - 1. Beat! Beat! Drums!
Weill: Four Walt Whitman Songs - 4. Dirge For Two Veterans

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Haydn at Eisenstadt: Armida at Herbst Gold festival Schloss Esterházy (★★★★) - Opera review
  • From Haydn and Elgar to Rap and Grime: Matthew O'Keeffe and Brixton Chamber Orchestra  - interview
  • Music, puppets & poetry: Goldfield Productions' Hansel & Gretel - a nightmare in eight scenes  - interview
  • In search of the Great American Opera, the strange case of Samuel Barber's Vanessa - feature
  • Essential Listening: Rossini's Semiramide revealed in a new complete recording from Opera Rara  (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Practical & working composer: Vaughan Williams choral premieres from Royal Hospital, Chelsea  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Distracting opera for distracted times: The Second Violinist (★★★½) - Opera review
  • A journey through time and music: 12 Ensemble at the Barbican, on tour and a debut disc  - feature
  • An imaginative Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress from British Youth Opera (★★★★½)  - Opera review
  • Just what it says on the tin, an enchanting Enchanted Island from British Youth Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • A substantial monument: Patrick Hawes talks about The Great War Symphony - interview
  • A vivid theatrical, orchestral experience: John Eliot Gardiner's all-Berlioz prom   (★★★★½) - Concert review
  • Mesmerising: Simone Spagnolo's new philosophical, operatic mono-drama 'Faust, Alberta'  (★★★½) - Opera review
  •  Home

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