Diepenbrock’s Complete Songs Reissued

Diepenbrock cover

DIEPENBROCK: Drie Ballades, Op. 1.4 Zwei Gesänge nach Dichtungen von Goethe.2 Die Liebende schreibt.1 Hinüber wall’ich.1 Es war ein alter König.5 Lied der Spinnerin.1 Der Abend.1 Kann ich im Busen heisse Wünsche tragen?2 Liebesklage.2 Celebrität.5 Receuillement.5 Les chats.5 L’invitation au voyage.3 En sourdine.2 Clair de lune.1 Mandoline.1 Écoutez la chanson bien douce.1 Puisque l’aube grandit.3 La Chanson de l’Hyprttrophique.1 Incantation.3 Berceuse.2,6 Ave Maria.3 Simeon’s Lofzang.5 Preghiera alla Madonna.4 Come raggio di sol.1 De klare dag.4 Maanlicht.4 Meinacht.2 Ik ben eenzaamheid niet meer alleen.1 Avondzang.4 Zij sluiment.4 Bejaard3 / 1Roberta Alexander, sop; 2Jard van Nes, 3Christa Pfeiler, mezzo; 4Christoph Prégardien, ten; 5Robert Holl, bs-bar; 6Daniël Esser, cel; Rudolf Jansen, pno / Brilliant Classics 96103

Here’s another “new old” composer that I, and thousands of other music lovers, have never heard of, Alphons Diepenbrock. Though born in 1862, he was by no means another stodgy Romantic music sound-alike but a lively composer with an open mind who fully embraced the musical revolution of Wagner and, later on, the major French composer whose work was inspired by Parsifal, Claude Debussy.

Although primarily a composer of vocal music, there are at least three orchestral suites available on YouTube that show you how original and powerful his musical mind worked: Im grossen Schweigen (1905-06, revised 1918), which includes a vocal part for bass (sung by Robert Hell); the Marsyas Suite (1910); and the symphonic suite from Elektra (1920). The second of these strongly reflects the influence of Debussy, the other two the influence of Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler, who admired several of his songs, particularly Hinüber wall’ich.

This 3-CD set, recorded between February 1994 and April 1995, was originally issued by NM Classics, but Brilliant Classics has fortunately obtained the permission to re-release it here. The one drawback is that the booklet contains no song texts or translations. Although Brilliant Classics states that these are available at their website, I went there and found the cupboard bare. I do hope that they correct this in the future.

Because of his own work as an organist and pianist, in addition to his love affair with Wagner, Diepenbrock’s piano accompaniments to his songs are far more complex than those of almost any composer before Sorabji; indeed, it often sounds as if they were piano compositions first with the vocal line added later. One could easily just play the piano parts in a recital and have listeners assume they were written as such without vocal lines. Yet in these vocal lines, Diepenbrock shows a great talent for lyricism in addition to drama. Even without knowing the words to these songs—and happily, one can find the original texts and many translations at Emily Ezust’s magnificent LiederNet Archive website—one can sense the dramatic thrust of the music.

The first group of four songs is sung by tenor Christoph Prégardien, and excellently so, but as it turns out this is a bit misleading, as neither he nor bass-baritone Robert Holl have the lion’s share of this material. Most of the songs are performed by the ladies, and an outstanding group they are though only the name of soprano Roberta Alexander was previously known to me. These are his Op. 1, and along with the 2 Songs of Goethe Op. 2 his most conventional pieces in this collection, but that doesn’t make them uninteresting, merely not as adventurous as the rest of his output, yet his setting of Goethe’s poem on The King of Thule is almost overwhelmingly dramatic. Goethe, whose musical taste was very reactionary (he even argued with Beethoven about that composer’s settings of his texts), would probably have hated it.

With CD 2 we move from the musical world of Wagner to the French school, whose music—and song settings of such French poets as Baudelaire and Verlaine—impressed him deeply. But you know the Frenchies: no one but THEIR composers “did it right.” As stated in Eduard Reeser’s excellent liner notes, when his French songs were performed

French critics were on the whole not unsympathetic, although some complained that the composer had placed the caesura after the second word in the first tercet, rather than having the two quatrains form an integral musical unit.

To which I will only say, foutrez vous, French critics. These songs are all quite good and, though you may not think they were by Debussy, you might indeed think they were by Duparc, Debussy’s most distinguished predecessor. The problem is that hearing all of them in succession, something the composer probably never intended, produces an impression of sameness which I did not get from his songs in German.

The third CD, which contains his songs set to Latin, Italian and Dutch lyrics, opens with a very strange setting of the Ave Maria in which the harmony suddenly shifts sideways in a manner reminiscent of composers to come. Diepenbrock found the “pivot points” within chords to change the harmony while still appearing to respect the basic tonality, but not really. There are also some subtle harmonic shifts in the next song, Simeon’s Lofzang, and in the Italian song Preghiera alla Madonna he might almost have been channeling Pizzetti, with a bit of whole-tone chords thrown in for color.

My verdict on Diepenbrock is that he was an interesting composer, original in some ways, whose music deserves to be heard and should not have fallen through the cracks of time if not one of the great musical geniuses of his day. Nonetheless, this set is well worth your hearing. All of the performances are excellent, all of the singers are first-rate, and thus they present to you the best possible picture of his talent.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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