Playlist: German song-cycles

James Jolly Sat 18th February 2017

James Jolly traces the development of the German-language song-cycle

The invention of the song-cycle is usually credited to Beethoven and Weber, and both composers’ cycles are rewarding listens. The Beethoven is a wonderful creation which elevates the piano’s role to that of equal (especially given the cycle’s postlude which prepared the way for Schubert and Schumann), while Weber’s four-song-cycle, Die Temperamente beim Verluste der Geliebten concerns itself with the poet’s reaction to lost love. (Schubert’s mastery of the form – has it ever been bettered? – needs little advocacy, and recordings of his two cycles abound.) Of Schumann’s cycles, Dichterliebe never fails to touch the heart, and the subtlety of the narrative gives the performers huge licence for ‘interpretation’: Ian Bostridge is wonderfully imaginative here. Of Mahler’s song-cycles, his Kindertotenlieder uses mood to unify, and creates an enveloping emotional response to the loss of a child. Strangely, Richard Strauss never really embraced the form (though many of his groups of vocal pieces, like the Four Last Songs, have a powerful unity of atmosphere): his three-song Ophelia Lieder, however, make a perfect trio with an intoxicatingly modernist flavour. Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1910) explores a doomed love affair against the backdrop of a garden – Gerhaher is magnificent here. Ernst Krenek’s 1929 Alpine travelogue in 20 songs reinvents the Schubertian cycle with masterly results. Hanns Eisler’s 1943 Hollywood Songbook resurrects an Old World form in the New World – magical when done with the intelligence of Matthias Goerne. The Swiss Othmar Schoeck’s claustrophobic cycle Lebendig begraben (1927) finds a man literally buried alive in a coffin – it’s a horrifying image and, by extension, explores a man’s spiritual burial under the weight of life’s demands. Wolfgang Rihm’s Das Rot (1991), for high voice, finds the song-cycle in good health even if it’s an unsettling experience, like standing on the edge of a precipice, the fall inevitable.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017