EISLER Lieder Und Balladen Vol 1
Hanns Eisler’s songs have been reasonably well represented on disc, not least with high-profile recordings from Matthias Goerne (including the Hollywood Songbook – Decca, 1/99). But this new album from MDG inaugurates what looks to be an important new four-volume survey of his vocal output, with the pianist Steffen Schleiermacher at the helm. It covers the key period of 1929 to 1937 during which the composer proved a master of the political song – many following a standard pattern by alternating melancholy self-reflection with righteous anger. All but a couple of the numbers here are settings of texts by Brecht.
I was expecting it to be quite a lot to swallow in one go – the programme is a generous one – but found myself happily listening all the way through at the first sitting. Eisler never lets his material get weighed down or portentous, and it’s all leavened by a good dose of dark Berlin humour, some subtle (the swaggering ‘Kuppellied’ includes sly Tristan quotations), some not so subtle (such as in the broad satire of ‘Das Lied vom Anstreicher Hitler’).
There’s no disguising Eisler’s knack for melody (in the lovely, nostalgic ‘Lied der Nanna’ for example), or his skill in adding delicious harmonic colour to material that could end up slightly monochrome. Though it’s a sound world in some ways familiar from the better-known Weill, we also hear hints of Wolf at his most biting and, in the thoughtful piano postludes, echoes of Schumann. There’s a good deal of Mahler, too, whose Wunderhorn pacifism feels here as though it’s being dragged into the dark heart of the 20th century.
All the songs receive terrific performances. Holger Falk has a clear, cleanly focused baritone that can run the gamut from a honeyed piano to something more like an impassioned shout (such as in the unrelenting ‘Das Lied vom SA Mann’); he even has to deliver some lines in ‘Lob des Lernens’ through a megaphone. There’s also an ideal balance between sophistication and rawness, a certain neutrality of interpretation that will bear repeated listening but doesn’t betray the gritty roots of the music.
As Schleiermacher explains in a generous booklet essay, the songs were written with a variety of accompaniments in mind, but he brings them all to fiery life at the piano. MDG’s sound is excellent. One real shame is that the texts are only in German. It would be a shame if that fact put anyone off this fascinating and hugely enjoyable disc.