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Recordings

Erich Zeisl: Lieder
29 Sep 2006

ZEISL: Lieder

While most of the familiar Lieder repertoire stems from the nineteenth century, the powerful attraction the artform spurred composition in this genre through the mid-twentieth century.

Erich Zeisl: Lieder

Wolfgang Holzmair, baritone, Cord Garben, piano.

cpo 777 170-2 [CD]

$15.99  Click to buy

Among its notable practitioners is Erich Zeisl (1905-59), whose tonal works are solidly based on the Romanticism his parents’ generation knew. Yet his knowledge of twentieth-century styles allowed him to enhance his works with strategically placed dissonances, tonal planing, modal inflections, ostinato-based structures, and other expressive devices that set him apart from such late-Romantic figures as Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf. At the heart of his Lieder is an engaging lyricism that makes the songs not only accessible, but memorable. His texts are of interest because he not only drew on such tradition sources as the works of Goethe and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, but like is older contemporary, Richard Strauss, modern poet whose verse attracted his imagination.

A Viennese by birth, who emigrated to the United States in 1938, Zeisl moved first in New York City and settled soon thereafter in Los Angeles. Unlike other composers of the time, Zeisl did not allow his style to change in reaction to world events or in response to popular trends. He did not give way to the various “isms” in the twentieth century, but composed in the style he knew well. Thus, while he may be regarded as a kind of hold-over from the earlier part of the century, Zeisl created works that are solidly constructed and quite original. If nothing else, the excellent recordings of these songs should help to inspire a reassessment of Zeisl’s work and interest in his other music.

This recording was issued at the centenary of Zeisl’s birth and offers a fine selection of the composer’s Lieder from the various collections he assembled at various times in his career. Among the more typical Lieder is “Vor meinem Fester” (from the Sieben Lieder, published in 1936), with its text by Arno Holz. In its straightforward style, this work is of interest for its details, with the piano figuration resembling birdcalls that set the context for the text. The more aggressive lovesong, “Janettee” (1925) has an innocent style that recalls the music of Sigmund Romberg, and those who know the early Lieder of Alban Berg can hear in Zeisl a very different treatment of the poetry of Otto Bierbaum. Yet other songs betray a more eclectic style, as with the setting of Goethe’s “Der Schäfer” (from Sieben Lieder, 1936) that has echoes of Tin-Pan Alley in the opening accompaniment and inflections of Middle-Eastern exoticism in the verses that describe the charms of a young maiden. This setting places Goethe squarely in the twentieth century in what is one of Zeisl’s more clever songs. Likewise, the Walter-Mitty humor of “Stillleben” (from Sechs Lieder, 1935) puts a cynical twist on the poem by Lessing in a setting that bears echoes of Cabaret numbers.

As to other well-known poets, the settings of Friedrich Nietzsche (“Die Sonne sinkt,” “Ecce Homo,” and “Das trunkene Lieder”) are of interest for the various approaches Zeisl took in setting them. The last of those three is the same text from Also sprach Zarathustra that Mahler used in the third movement of the Third Symphony, and even though the opening betrays some similarities, it is a different interpretation of the text that demonstrate’s Zeisl’s original voice.

Yet when it comes to Zeisl’s distinctive voice, the cycle Mondbilder, with texts by Christian Morgenstern, has much to offer. The four poems that comprise this cycle are more extended than some of the other ones that Zeisl set. Dating from 1928, this is a composition that reflects a mature composer, and in approaching this work, Zeisl created a persuasive work that bears numerous rehearings. The four parts include “Der Mond steht da,” “Eine goldene Sichel,” “Groß über schweigenden Wäldern” and “Durch die Abendwolken ziehen,” and while it is difficult to prefer any one of these over the others, the impassioned music of the third song is quite powerful. This is music that deserves to be part of recital programs so that the public can appreciate better not only Zeisl’s music, but the intriguing texts of Morgenstern.

In performing this rich and varied selection from Zeisl’s Lieder, Wolfgang Holzmair gives a laudable performance. Known well for his fine interpretations of traditional Lieder, Holzmair is the ideal interpreter for these songs. The pieces chosen for this recording fit his range well, and the music content allows him to express a variety of moods convincingly. He works well with his accompanist on this recording, Cord Garben, who brings a deft approach to this music. The nuances of both Holzmair and Garben emerge clearly in this recording, which is an exemplary contribution to the discography of modern Lieder.

James L. Zychowicz

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