Even before the First World War, during which he served on the front line, Braunfels was preparing what is now his best-known work, the opera Die Vögel , which helped launch Albrecht Dümling's seminally important series on Decca which pioneered the rediscovery of Entartete Musik, the "degenerate" music the Nazis hated. Although his career dimmed, Braunfels wasn't actively suppressed by the regime, even though he was a half-Jewish convert. His three sons all served in the German army. His music itself would have made him an outsider to the Nazis and their taste for unquestioning sentimentality in art. Die Vögel is based on Aristophanes. Braunfels's treatment of the play highlights its powerful underlying message. The Birds aren't so much passive objects of beauty but the voices of women protesting against dominant hierarchies. Braunfels continually returned to these basic concepts throughout his career. In Jeanne d'Arc, Szenen aus dem Leben der heiligen Johanna (more here) and Die Verkündigung (more here), Braunfels used medievalism as a disguise for ideas that were dangerous in a totalitarian regime. Braunfels was a resistance fighter no less, using the Gothic to subvert the Nazi preoccupation with glorifying the past. In Der Traum ein Leben, Braunfels even depicts a talentless fool following a false Fuhrer. The orchestration is lush but highly ironic. Attempts to rebrand Braunfels as dreamy-eyed romantic inflict on him a kind of posthumous castration.
This new recording begins with the Vorspiel und Prolog der Nachtigall Op 30/3 1913) a coloratura display for soprano and orchestra, a sampler for the full opera Die Vögel which premiered in 1920. Exquisitely refined playing from the Staatskapelle Weimar, emphasizing the delicacy of the scoring: to remind us that birds are fragile, like the ideas they symbolize in the opera. Valentina Farcas sings the fiendishly difficult part with assurance, not quite as miraculously as Hellen Kwon did for Lothar Zagrosek in 1997, though more idiomatically than some since. Kwon made the part feel almost supernaturally ethereal, like an elemental force of nature, which, arguably, is what the role is all about.
In Zwei Hölderlin-Gesänge op 27 (1916-18) Michael Volle is a commanding presence, and rightly so, for the poems have a strange unworldly quality "Willkommen dann, o Stille der Schattenwelt!" the poet wrote, wrote, fixated by death. The second song, Der Tod fürs Vaterland is even more unsettling. Swirling, almost Wagnerian flourishes in the orchestra lead to stillness, for we are on a battlefield awaiting the Valkyries. The legend long pre-dated Wagner. For Hölderlin "Fremdling und brüderlich ists hier unten" might have meant noble sacrifice, but to Braunfels, in the last years of the war, words like "O Vaterland,Und zähle nicht die Toten! Dir ist,Liebes! nicht Einer zu viel gefallen" would not have felt so grand. Significantly, Hölderlin came from Württemberg, which supplied Napoleon with thousands of troops, most of whom died in Russia in 1812, a detail not lost on Braunfels, who marked on the manuscript that it was written "in the forest camp at Neu-Württemberg at Christmas 1916". These two songs are neatly complemented by Auf ein Soldatengrab op 26 to a poem by Hermann Hesse, written in 1915 : new poetry, new music and very topical.
"Dich, Nachtigall, verstand ich eine Stunde" sings Klaus Florian Vogt in Abschied vom Walde op 30/1 which Hoffegut sings in Die Vögel when he leaves the Nightingale in the woods, and returns home a wiser man. The lustre of Vogt's singing makes one feel that Hoffegut learned more from the birds of the forest than Siegfried ever could.
This selection of orchestral songs has a wonderful unity, underlining the importance of respecting Braunfels as an intellectual as well as a composer. They are nicely set into place by Braunfels's Don Juan op 34 (1922-4) variations on the Champagne Aria from Mozart Don Giovanni. Seven variations follow the initial Theme, all of them played briskly, reflecting the humour oif the original. Leporello is perplexed and the aria is delightfully funny. But there's a darker side, as Donna Elvira discovers. One day, Don Giovanni will pay for this frivolity. Thus, beneath the post Jugendstil decorative filigree lurks menace. Variation 4 is serene, but Variation 5 ( Mässig-bewegter) begins with an ominous boom , as if winds were sweeping upwards, from a tomb. Is the Commendatore emerging? The mood in Variation 6 (Andante) is equivocal, the theme emerging on a solo wind instrument, "clouds" of rumbling strings enveloping it. In the final Variation (Presto) the old devil is back to his tricks, flying fleetingly, the brass blowing raspberries of defiance, though the ending, is, as we know, defeat . Braunfels is much more than a study in techiques and adaptation. It's a miniature opera, without words.
Congratulations to Oehms Classics for this superlative recording of Braunfels's Orchestral Songs, so good that I've already ordered the next in the series. But the same standards of excellence don't apply to the programme notes. What relevance does Yoko Ono have for Braunfels, happily married as he was? These songs aren't about love. This is something that Oehms should take more seriously. Good notes are important because they can enhance the listening experience: well-informed readers can better appreciate what they're listening to.
Original Content: Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1