Winterberg’s Unusual Songs

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WINTERBERG: 3 Lieder. Orchesterlieder. Ich habe dich. Der wanderer kniet (2 vers). Lebe wohl! Frühling. Ich spreche einen namen aus. Kindheit. 8 Lieder. Dort und Hier.* Leichte music / Irena Troupová, sop; Vojtěch Šembera, bar; Jan Dušek, pno; *Roman Hranička, vln; Balász Adoorján, cel / ArcoDiva UP 0238

This is a perfect example of how we reviewers are often thwarted in our attempts to fully appreciate certain discs and impart information to you, the readers. Here is a 2-CD set of songs written by the wonderful but elusive Hans Winterberg, whose music is only now emerging from a 20-year ban on performances and recordings, which means that there are NO prior recordings of these works. And alas, no texts or translation of any of these songs were available for download, nor are they on the usually-reliable LiederNet Archive website because of the 20-year ban on his music, thus I can only tell you what I saw in the publicity blurb:

The present release is the world premiere recording of complete songs by Czech-German composer Hans Winterberg. Thanks to this recording you can enjoy this music for the very first time. On 2 albums, you can discover the many different moods and colors of Winterberg’s writing. These songs were usually inspired by particular poets, for example Franz Werfel, Ludwig Uhland or Roderich Menzel. The performers have studied the music from Winterberg’s autographs as there is still no modern critical edition, which is very unique.

And not one song is identified with a single poet on either the Naxos Music Library or their download site for reviewers; all of the authors are “unidentified.” So how am I, a non-German speaker, supposed to know what any of these songs are about? All I can give you are the titles as translated by Google, i.e., the first song is The rain murmurs softly. But I know German poets well enough to realize that the title isn’t often even used as a lyric in the poem. [Update: Soprano Irena Troupova was kind enough to provide me with a booklet from the record manufacturer. It does indeed contain lyrics to all the songs, but only in German and Czech, so be prepared to use Google Translate when you get the CD.]

Yet the music itself is fascinating—far more interesting, in fact, than Winterberg’s piano pieces which I reviewed earlier this month. Largely bitonal, but not atonal, he sets lyrical vocal lines over constantly shifting piano accompaniments, and happily soprano Irena Troupová, who gets the lion’s share of the singing, has an excellent voice, clear and pure with excellent diction, though she doesn’t strike me as much of an interpreter. Baritone Vojtěch Šembera, on the other hand, just gets by; he has an unsteady tonal emission but a fairly nice timbre. Pianist Jan Dušek is also excellent, playing the music with excellent feeling, which helps quite a bit.

The first song in the Orchesterlied, obviously reduced to a piano accompaniment, is also quite fascinating (“Stadt, park und schloss”), being slow and moody with slow-moving accompaniment that alternates between simple chords and spiky bitonal figures. Much of the music is rather dream-like, similar to some of Szymanowski’s pieces but with a more German expressionist quality about it. And surprisingly, Lebe wohl! is almost entirely tonal, with only a few little deviations in the accompaniment from basic harmony.

Yet nothing on this set is quite as bizarre-sounding as his song cycle Dort und Hier for soprano and piano trio. This is some of the darkest, most nihilistic music you will ever hear. I’m sure that if violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja heard it, it would be on her radar for an upcoming concert. It’s definitely her cup of tea. Immediately following this, however, is the Leichte music, which almost sound like Kurt Weill cabaret tunes! In fact the last of them, “Mein Balduin,” almost sounds like a jazz tune that Greta Keller would have sung just to piss off the Nazis.

A fascinating album, then, and except for the four songs that are vocally desecrated by Šembera, expertly performed.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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