Thursday, January 1, 2009

The songs of Erich Korngold and Reynaldo Hahn

For someone who likes opera, I've had substantial difficulties in appreciating art songs. While I've seen memorable recitals by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Renée Fleming, in general I prefer to hear voices with strings and continuo than with piano alone.

However, I've recently discovered two song collections that have overcome my resistance to the genre. The first is Anne Sofie von Otter's Love's Twilight: Songs by Strauss, Berg, and Korngold with the pianist Bengt Forsberg. I'd been looking for a recording of Alban Berg's Sieben fruhe Lieder (Seven Early Songs) ever since we'd seen Renée Fleming perform them several years ago. The coupling of the Berg songs with Richard Strauss made Love's Twilight irresistible when I found it in the used bin of my local record shop. It turned out, though, that it was neither the Strauss nor the Berg songs that I enjoyed most; instead, to my amazement, it was the Korngold.

I knew Erich Wolfgang Korngold as one of the generation of European composers who escaped to America when the Nazis came to power. He wound up in Hollywood writing film scores for adventure movies, especially Errol Flynn's Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938; it won an Oscar for best score).

I was vaguely aware of one of his operas, Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City, 1920), through a recording of its aria "Marietta's Lied" on the soundtrack of the film Aria (1987). Nothing, though, prepared me for how enjoyable his songs are, especially in von Otter's performances. Surprisingly, given his blood-and-thunder film scores, Korngold has a gift for writing haunting melodies that move in unexpected directions but still somehow seem absolutely right, as in "In meine inninge Nacht" (In my deepest night). What can sound like simple, repeated forms turn out to be subtly varied on each repetition, as in "Liebesbriefchen" (Love note) or "Alt-spanisch" (Old Spanish song). And von Otter gives them performances that are inward, meditative, but intensely felt.

Von Otter and Forsberg have an all-Korngold recital on DVD in the "Voices of Our Time" series (it was also released on a now out-of-print CD). It includes movements from some of Korngold's chamber music, as well as the songs; I recommend it very highly. To give you a taste, here is von Otter performing "Marietta's Lied" from this DVD recital:

The words mean: "Joy, stay with me. Come to me, my true love. Night falls now; you are my light and day. Our hearts beat as one; our hopes rise heavenward...Though sorrow darkens all, come to me, my true love. Bring your pale face close to mine. Death cannot separate us. If you must leave me one day, know that there is a life after this."

Another recent discovery has been La Belle Epoque, Susan Graham's performances of the songs of Reynaldo Hahn. His songs are generally introspective, with gentle melodies that often hover just on the edge of one's perceptual grasp. "Exquisite" is a word often applied to Hahn's music, perhaps derived from his delicate treatment of mood in "L'heure exquise" (The exquisite moment); it's an adjective that can certainly be applied to the performances of Graham and her pianist Roger Vignoles on this recording. Another strong recommendation.

Here is a video created by xavisuescun, which sets Graham's performance of Hahn's "L'heure exquise" to a montage of gorgeously introspective 19th century portraits of women--the sort of women who might have attended the salons for which Hahn wrote and performed his music. The words mean: "The white moon shines in the forest; from every branch a voice rises up from beneath the foliage...Oh, my beloved. The lake, a deep mirror, reflects the silhouette of the black willow where the wind weeps...Let us dream. This is the moment. A vast and tender peace seems to descend from the heavens where the evening star is shining...This is the exquisite moment."


  1. This is not really apropos the post as such, but one of my favorite sopranos of all time is Elly Ameling, and my favorite CD of hers is a recording of Schubert lieder. My mom used to clean the house on Sundays to it :)

  2. Memsaab, your comment is perfectly apropos. While it was a short step from, say, the operas of Richard Strauss to his orchestral songs, until recently I'd had difficulty making the leap to traditional lieder. And it was particularly the lieder of Schubert and Schumann--the core of the art song repertory--that presented the greatest difficulty for me.

    Now that the songs of Korngold, Hahn, Strauss, and some other late Romantic composers such as Debussy (I will never forget Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's performance of "Beau soir") have found a way through my thick skull, clearly it's time to give Schubert and Schumann another chance. Many thanks, Memsaab, for the recommendation of Elly Ameling's performances.

  3. The CD I refer to specifically features the pianist Jorg Demus and Hans Deinzer on clarinet. Mine was released by deutsche harmonia mundi, and it contains Schubert and Schumann lieder (although I prefer the Schubert songs by far).

    Let me know what you think!