Wednesday 22 September 2021

Die stille Stadt: Dorothea Herbert's debut recital explores songs by three Viennese contemporaries, Alma Mahler, Franz Shreker & Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Die stille Stadt - Alma Mahler, Schreker, Korngold; Dorothea Herbert, Peter Nilsson; 7 Mountain Records

Die stille Stadt
- Alma Mahler, Schreker, Korngold; Dorothea Herbert, Peter Nilsson; 7 Mountain Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
For her debut recital, soprano Dorothea Herbert explores songs from early 20th century Vienna but treading an interestingly alternative path

Under the title Die stille Stadt, this recital from soprano Dorothea Herbert and pianist Peter Nilsson on 7 Mountain Records brings together songs from the Vienna of the early 20th century, by two composers who were contemporaries Alma Mahler and Franz Schreker, and one composer who is from the younger generation, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The disc is Herbert's debut recital and, incidentally, she will be singing the role of Leonore in Glyndebourne on Tour's new production of Beethoven's Fidelio which opens on 8 October.

Daughter of a painter, Alma Mahler (nee Schindler) studied music with Zemlinsky, and married Mahler. A composer herself, her ambitions were supported by the first, but rather quashed by the latter. She destroyed all but 17 of her songs and never returned to composition despite Mahler's tentative support towards the end of his life. Thereafter, married first to architect Walter Gropius and then to writer, Franz Werfelshe, she became something of a muse for artistic Vienna, seeming to live through other artists. Interestingly, none of her surviving songs set female poets.

Franz Schreker and Alma Mahler had a brief affair (whilst Schreker was still married), and both their songs seems to often deal with the erotic, albeit using words which are rarely explicit. At the time Alma Mahler was writing her songs, Korngold was still a child prodigy and though he would move from the hothouse of Vienna to that of Hollywood, songs would remain an interest. Those on this disc were written in Vienna in the late 1920s and early 1930s, before his Hollywood sojourn. And it should be remembered that Korngold's extended stay in the USA came about partly because when he got restless and planned to return to Vienna, the Anschluss made this impossible.

Alma Mahler's songs on this disc all seem to partake of a melancholic lyricism, and interestingly she often moves towards speech-rhythms and quasi-recitative. Quite often the piano, though complex, seems to be there to support the voice, we are aware of a vocal line unfolding over supporting structure. The style evokes early Richard Strauss and perhaps early Berg, as well as of course her teacher Zemlinsky. The title song Die stille Stadt sets words by Richard Dehmel who was a poet popular with contemporaries such as Richard Strauss and Schoenberg. Interestingly, Der Erkennende sets words by Franz Werfel, with whom Alma Mahler would be romantically linked later in her life.

There is a dark intensity to the music, which is rarely relieved by the sort of melodic lyricism which comes out of Gustav Mahler's songs. It is worthwhile remembering though, that these are all relatively early pieces, and that the idea of a woman forging a career as it composer was still somewhat remarkable and difficult. 

It is fascinating comparing and contrasting with Schreker's songs, he similarly seems to present the voice against a backdrop of piano, often with harmony which is restless and uneasy. Though in a song like Spuk, Schreker seems to be somewhat akin to Richard Strauss. What they certainly do is bring out the texts, these are strong examples of sung poetry mirrored by complex webs of harmony. Whereas Alma Mahler seems to have chosen texts largely by contemporaries, Schreker's choice veers more widely into the 19th century including Tolstoy. These songs are also relatively early works, mostly predating his first opera Flammen (from 1901/02) and once he started writing operas Schreker seems to have largely abandoned the song form.

With Korngold's songs, we feel the harmony sometimes easing, they lack the chromatic intensity and tension of those by Alma Mahler and Schreker. Whilst Herbert and Nilsson end with 'Marietta's Lied' from Korngold's opera Die Tote Stadt, it is interesting that none of Korngold's songs on this disc approach the lyrical beauty of that piece. Korngold's song writing, as evinced here, still has an element of lyric intensity and harmonic restlessness, intent on colouring the words rather than writing gorgeous tunes. Rather frustratingly, copyright prevents the texts of Korngold's songs being printed.

Dorothea Herbert and Peter Nilsson bring these songs alive with fine intelligence. Throughout the recital, Herbert is highly attentive to the words and the way the music is intended to colour them, whilst Nilsson provides superb support. He deals lyrically with the complexities of the piano writing, and makes just the right sort of partner.

This is an intelligently put together recital, which sheds light on an alternative Vienna away from Mahler, Schoenberg and Berg, one which was equally exploring song and the way music could bring poetry alive. If I have a quibble it is that a programme of 22 such intense songs can feel a bit overwhelming, and when the lyricism of the final song arrives it is wonderfully welcome.

This is certainly a striking and memorable debut recital, Herbert and Nilsson display wonderful stylistic confidence, combining lyricism, intensity and text to strong effect.

Alma Mahler (1879-1964) - Die stille Stadt, Meine Nächte, Ansturm, Ekstase, Der Erkennende, Licht in der Nacht
Franz Schreker (1878-1934) - Wohl fühl ich, wie das Leben rinnt, Unendliche Liebe, Vernichtet ist mein Lebensglück, Die Dunkelheit sinkt schwer, Traum, Spuk, Stimmen des Tages
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) - Unverganglichkeit, 3 Lieder Op.22,  ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’ from Die tote Stadt
Dorothea Herbert (soprano)
Paul Nilsson (piano)

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