Wednesday 14 April 2021

Richard Strauss satirising his publisher & exploring exoticism with vertiginously high vocals: Unerhört (Outrageous) from tenor Daniel Behle and pianist Oliver Schnyder

Unerhört - Richard Strauss; Daniel Behle, Oliver Schnyder; Prospero Classical

- Richard Strauss; Daniel Behle, Oliver Schnyder; Prospero Classical

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 April 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A recital which takes us down some rewarding byways in Richard Strauss' song output

This disc of songs by Richard Strauss from tenor Daniel Behle and pianist Oliver Schnyder on Prospero Classical comes with the name Unerhört (Outrageous) which is a description which hardly seems to need to apply to Strauss songs, but Behle and Schnyder have been looking beyond the well-known and have come up with a selection of lesser-known, unknown and yes, outrageous songs including the Gesänge des Orients and the highly satirical Krämerspiegel (Shopkeeper's Mirror), written as a result of Strauss' contractual problems with his publisher!

We begin with a selection of lesser-known songs, first two about Winter, both setting texts by Karl Henckell and coming from Strauss' Opus 48. Both might seem somewhat familiar, as Strauss would re-cycle the music in Arabella and Die Frau ohne Schatten! These songs introduce us to Behle's stylish seemingly effortless lyric tenor, with the gently intimate Winterweihe with Behle using a lovely mezza-voce, and Winterliebe which seems to explode out of the disc and reminds me of Strauss writing for Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. Waldseligkeit is another quietly intimate song, hushed magic with a restless piano underneath.

Traum durch die Dammerung sets a poem by Otto Julius Bierbaum, who co-founded the Überbrettl cabaret in Berlin and the poem comes from Bierbaum's collection, Deutsche Chansons subtitled Brettl-lieder (Arnold Schoenberg was involved with the Überbrettl and would set Bierbaum in his Brettl Lieder of 1901). And again, recycling went on and Strauss' melody pops up in Ein Heldenleben. Strauss does not write in a cabaret manner, and the song has a lovely lyrical lilt, The next song is deliberately fake, Der Schmetterling is a re-creation of Strauss' style by Behle, creating something with a quietly busy charm. We end this group with Morgenrot, setting a love poem by Ruckert to create an urgent piece with angular moments in the vocal line.

Gesänge des Orients takes as its text five adaptations from the Persian and Chinese by Hans Bethge, the poet whose translations from the Chinese inspired Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. The songs were written in 1928, shortly after Die Aegyptische Helena. They are set vertiginously high and whilst they have been sung by women (Christine Brewer has recorded them with Roger Vignoles on Hyperion), Strauss wrote them for tenor (though they are dedicated to soprano Elisabeth Schumann and her husband). The cycle begins in a seductive yet complex manner with Behle floating the high notes beautifully. A couple of songs return to the dazzling manner of Zerbinetta, then something more seductive with Behle amost cooing the high vocal line. The cycle ends in dazzling manner, with Strauss pushing tonality in the complex exoticism of the song.

In 1906, the publishing house of Bote & Bock published Strauss' 6 Lieder Opus 56, but they inserted into his contract at a clause stating that they would hold the rights of his next six songs. Strauss was furious. This was a period when copyright, fees and royalties were a hot topic in Germany and Strauss had been instrumental in the founding of the Society of German Composers in 1898. His response to Bote & Bock was to not write any songs! So for twelve years he concentrated on opera, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Then finally he wrote a set of songs in 1918 in response to a threat of legal action by the publishers. The result was Krämerspiegel, a highly satirical cycle that the publishers refused to accept. Finally, after more legal actions, Strauss dashed off his Opus 67 set which includes the three Ophelia Lieder.

The twelve poems in Krämerspiegel are by Alfred Kerr (1867-1948), the most celebrated drama critic in Germany (his daughter was the German-born British writer and illustrator Judith Kerr who wrote The Tiger who came to tea). Alfred Kerr supported Strauss war with the publishers and agreed to write the poems with great glee. They satirise publishers and publishing unmercifully, using a great many puns and more, and to enjoy them properly you need an explanation (which is provided in the admirable article in the booklet). So the first two songs makes great play on the story of a goat who comes as a messenger and which feeds on a flowers, except that in German goat is 'Bock', messenger is 'Bote' and bouquet is 'Strauss', and so it goes on through all the songs. In one, the major publisher Breitkopf & Härtel is referred to via a hare ('Hase' in German, the firm's proprietor was Dr Oskar von Hase) and flat-head ('Härtel' in German) The result is a cycle full of in-jokes and dominated by a huge piano part (was that another of Strauss' jokes?), and as well Strauss includes references to his own works too!

The cycle is frankly curious, particularly the way that Strauss writes such a huge and demanding piano part, with many of the songs have long piano introductions, and the voice is largely declamatory. Yet the two performers embrace the music and perform the songs in wonderfully bravura yet deadpan style. There are numerous striking elements to the cycle, including a complex chromatic fugue which Strauss uses to create a rather eerie atmosphere, and some distinctly Rosenkavalier-ish moments! The booklet provides full text and translations along with extensive explanations, and in a way to enjoy this at its best you would need to annotate the text to see where Strauss and Kerr are making their jokes. (In the Hyperion edition, Roger Vignoles explanations for each song are printed just below each song text which is the best way, I think). This is not a cycle I would listen to regularly, but there is a lot of fascinating Strauss here, particularly in the large piano parts and both Behle and Schnyder are brilliant in their capturing of the work's strange atmosphere.  

The record comes with a fine illustrated booklet with two substantial articles as well as full texts and translations. The first article, about provenance and fakes, makes interesting reading, but it is a shame that the writer spends so long talking about a song, Malven, which is not performed on the disc!

Apart from projects like Roger Vignoles' complete Richard Strauss songs on Hyperion, few performers venture away from the small group of well-known Strauss songs so Daniel Behle and Oliver Schnyder's imaginative recital is more than welcome, doubly so when you consider the seductive effortless way Behle sings the high-lying Gesänge des Orients, and Oliver Schnyder's dead-pan bravura in  Krämerspiegel.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) - Winterweihe Op. 48, No. 4 (1900)
Richard Strauss - Winterliebe Op. 48, No. 5 (1901)
Richard Strauss - Waldseligkeit Op. 49, No. 1 (1901)
Richard Strauss - Traum durch die Dammerung Op. 29, No. 1 (1895)
Daniel Behle (born 1974)- Der Schmetterling (2017)
Richard Strauss - Morgenrot Op. 46, No. 4 (1900)
Richard Strauss - Gesänge des Orients Op. 77 (1928)
Richard Strauss - Krämerspiegel Op. 66 (1918)
Daniel Behle (tenor)
Oliver Schnyder (piano)
Recorded 29-31 January 2017, SRF Studio Zurich Brunnenhof, Switzerland
Prospero Classical PROSP0011 1CD

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