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23 Aug 2009
Paul Hindemith: Die junge Magd, Op. 23, no. 2; Ernst Toch: Die chinesische Flöte, Op. 29.
Gustav Mahler was not alone in setting verses from Hans Bethge’s collection of Chinese-inspired poetry entitled Die chinesische Flöte, as he did in his symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde.
In contrast to Mahler’s effort, Ernst Toch composed a three-movement work which makes use of Bethge’s title for its setting of three poems: “Die geheimnisvolle Flöte,” “Die Ratte,” and “Das Los des Menschen.” Among the recent selections in the series Edition Staatskapelle Dresden is a CD which includes an historic performance of Toch’s Die Chinesische Flöte, a setting of three of Bethge’s poems, from 22 February 1949 along with a recording from 15 September 1948 of Paul Hindemith’s Die junge Magd, Op. 23b.
Dating from 1922 Ernst Toch’s Die chinesische Flöte, Op. 29 is a substantially different work than Mahler’s more familiar setting of Bethge’s poetry. From the outset the spare timbres connote a different style. In contrast to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, in which chamber-music texts are part of the larger fabric of the work, Toch’s Chinesische Flöte is conceived for solo voice and chamber orchestra. Almost programmatically, the solo flute is prominent in the first movement, Toch’s setting of “Die geheimnisvolle Flöte,” and complements the voice throughout the work. Toch is sensitive to Bethge’s text, and allows the declamation to emerge readily in his sometimes spare orchestral textures. Likewise, he makes effective use of instrumental interludes to set off the verses of the poem and thus underscore the text, rather than render it all at once and thus risk losing the attention of the listeners. Inspired by the original text of Li Tai Pao, Bethge recreated in German the sense of remoteness to which Toch responded appropriately. Trötschel captures the sense of text well with her phrasing and intonations. Since the piece lies well for Trötschel’s voice, she is able to convey in this performance shades of meaning in the text.
The second setting in this cycle is a much shorter, somewhat ironic text entitled “Die Ratte” (“The Rat”), a metaphor for an obsession. Thus, the rapid-fire declamation that Toch uses is entirely appropriate to the verse, and serves as an excellent contrast to the sense of remote calm he achieved in the first piece. Again, Trötschel brings a natural kind of phrasing to the delivery, which is always clear and distinct. The third and final piece is “Das Los des Menschens” (“The Lot of Mankind”) a poem in which the summer season becomes a means of expressing something of the angst about human existence. Here Toch adapts from cliché sounds associated with the orient in the accompaniment in a setting with equal weight to the first. The instrumental music is more prominent than in the first movement and serves to punctuate the verses in this setting. Trötschel’s delivery brings clarity to this performance, which allows the text to be heard distinctly. The latter serves well for those who want to hear Bethge’s text, which is, unfortunately, not reproduced in the liner notes - for these pieces and Hindemith’s Hänssler offers the texts only in English translation, rather than the conventional bi- or trilingual presentation association with Lieder or chansons.
Composed around the same time, Hindemith’s song cycle Die junge Magd also makes use of a chamber ensemble for its accompaniment, specifically a string quartet augmented by flute and clarinet. The resulting timbres involve some of the composer’s distinctive style, which underscores the expressive dissonances he used in his settings some of the Austrian poet’s Georg Trakl’s verse The poems express some of the meaninglessness aspects of human existence, and Himdemith’s settings intensify them. Further, Ruth Lange brought out the introspective nature of the work with her idiomatic performance of the music. Performed in Germany shortly after the end of World War II, this work bears a further level of meaning, through a recording made during the rebuilding of a country which was at the forefront of modernism. The first poem of the cycle is particularly effective “Oft am Brunnen” and each of the succeeding five songs has something to offer. The recording is remarkably reproduced well in this CD, but it would be useful to have the texts reproduced in the accompanying booklet. As interesting as it is to have more background on the performers than usually occurs, the text is essential to pieces like this, which are available less frequently in recordings than other
James L. Zychowicz