25 Aug 2006


In making words sing, to use a phrase from a recent study of the poetics of vocal composition, Aribert Reimann (b. 1936) does not emulate another composer as much as he makes fashions his own lines and punctuates them with accompaniments that serve as a means of accentuating the text.

Thus, without a point of reference that links him to another composer, be it Schumann, Mahler, Wolf, Strauss, or anyone else, Reimann’s Lieder may seem from that perspective to be excessively modern. Yet the attention he has given to the texts appears in the music. It is as though he makes the words sing by allowing the text to be presented clearly. While this is apparent in his Nachtstück I (1966) and Nachtstück II (1978), both settings of poetry by Joseph von Eichendorff, it is paramount in Engführung (1967) with texts by Paul Celan and his set of Six Poems by Sylvia Plath (1975). More importantly, the interpretations of the music found on this record also bear the imprimatur of the composer himself, who accompanied the singers in the performances recorded on March 1968, June 1973 and December 1981.

Of the music included on this recording, the first set of Nachtstück is, perhaps, the most accessible. Those unfamiliar with the vocal work of Reimann may want to start with the opening of the cycle (“Wir ziehen treulich auf die Wacht”) which contains some evocative sonorities in the piano. While the sounds can be discussed in terms of noctural images, they also convey a sense of the sound-world that Reimann used in this song and, in a sense extends through the five pieces in this work. It is difficult to imagine a more authentic interpretation, with the composer himself accompanying Barry McDaniel, who delivers the music convincingly. In fact, McDaniel makes this work particularly engaging, with his supple approach to the melismatic passages that Reimann uses to accentuate some parts of the text. In this and other pieces, the vocal line and its accompaniment can seem be conceived at odds, and yet the stylistic fingerprint of Reimann emerges in such contrasting textures. While all the songs in this set have something to recommend, the third setting “Vor dem Schloss in den Bäumen” is a tour-de-force for ensemble in its intricate rhythms and, at times, unexpected entrances by either the voice or piano.

Likewise, Reimann’s second set of Eichendoff settings, those that comprise Nachtstück II, are stylistically connected the first ones, even with the two works separated by over a decade at a critical time in the composer’s life, when he was working on his remarkable opera Lear. The first song in the second collection (“Nachts”) is notable for its extended melismatic passages which betray a creative use of modal patterns that are, at times, at odds with the atonal accompaniment. “Der Umgekehrende,” the second piece in the cycle involves some sustained passages in the vocal line that make it seem as an accompaniment to the florid piano writing. The other songs are of interest, particularly “Trost,” with its engaging accompaniment and sometimes declamatory presentation of the vocal line. The sustained emotion of the final song makes it seem like a scena for voice and piano, with its elegiac setting of a Rückert-like text by Eichendorff.

While songs with texts by Eichendorff seem to be a convention of Lieder, especially those by a German composer, it is less usual to find settings of modern poets, especially the verse of Sylvia Plath. Reimann found inspiration in her collection of verse entitled Ariel, which was already esteemed at the time this piece received its pemere. As pointed as poems by Rilke, these poems by Plath are multidimensional as texts alone. It is difficult to imagine them set to music, and it may be that the choice may have caused Reimann to use a different, more abstract approach to the Plath poems than occurs in the Eichendorff settings. If lyricism is evident in the Eichendorff cycle, a kind of post-modern expressionism characterizes the Plath songs. It is laudable that Reimann set the original English-language verses, which emerge clearly enough in the American singer Catherine Gayer’s impassioned delivery of some of Plath’s most intensive poetry. It is difficult not to associate Plath’s life from her work, especially when the subjects of mortality and self-identity are part of the texts.

With Engführung, Reimann drew on Paul Celan’s longer poetry, and in setting it created a structure that reflects the intensity of a solo cantata. Unlike the kinds of set pieces that are often used within the framework of a song cycle, Reimann sustained the mood of the piece in a demanding work for tenor and piano. The venerable Swiss musician Ernst Haefliger gave a moving account of the piece that is preserved in this compilation.

These are not the only Lieder by Riemann available from Orfeo, which has released another CD of the composer’s vocal works. Both recordings of Reimann’s music are part of a series of issues of twentieth-century vocal music by such composers as Sergei Prokofiev, Karol Szymanowski, Anton von Verbern, Wolfgang Rihm, and others. By choosing such convincing performances as those preserved on this CD, Orfeo has preserved some fine interpretations that are difficult to equal.

James L. Zychowicz