Audiophile Audition - 15 augustus 2013

Ebony Band, “Around Prague, 1922-1937” = Works of PONC, ULLMANN, BURIAN, HABA, SCHIMMERLING – Channel Classics

Special interest to be sure, but a rewarding glimpse into a troubled era.

Published on August 15, 2013

Ebony Band, “Around Prague, 1922-1937” = MIROSLAV PONC: The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower; Five Small Pieces; Five Polydynamic Pieces; Cheerful Acrostics; HANNS ALDO SCHIMMERLING: Six Miniatures for Chamber Orchestra; EMIL FRANTISEK BURIAN: Small Overture; About Children; ALOIS HÁBA: Nonett II; VIKTOR ULLMANN: Six Songs – Ebony Band/Barbara Kozelj, mezzo-sop. /Werner Herbers – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS 34813 (Distr. by Harmonia mundi), (7/9/13), 78:26 ***1/2:

There have been discoveries and intriguing recent recordings of music from the Holocaust-infected war-torn Europe of the 1920s and 1930s. From both a cultural as well as historical point of view, the circumstances in eastern Europe that led to the rise of Nazism and various forms of repression are myriad and consistently fascinating.

This collection of music of nearly lost composers from Prague during this time is interesting to listen to; though probably not within everyone’s tastes. The composer “highlighted” on this collection is Miroslav Ponc, who survived through the tumultuous times to become a professor at the Berlin Conservatory, of all places. His style is a sort of post-Schoenberg use of serialist techniques (though hardly in formal rows) and with a healthy amount of alternative intonations (microtones and the like).

The major work presented here is several separate sections of his absurdist, abstract ballet The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower. The suite (heard here in several separate sections) became better known than the whole, which was written for the stage play – also in the “absurdist” or “Dadaist” realm – by Jean Cocteau. It is a fascinating but somewhat disconcerting work to listen to with it microtonal piano and melodies that enter and disappear without resolution or development. There are also three other short chamber works by Ponc represented here. The Five Small Pieces and the Five Polydynamic Pieces are a bit more in the “Vienna School” for their sound but still do contain some of the odd microtonal sounds that Ponc favored. In a similar vein, Cheerful Acrostics is a series of short cerebral little piano works; each of which depicts a different person in his life (sort of a piano serialist Enigma Variations). It is an interesting work to be sure, that resembles Krenek in some ways.

The other composers represented here also come from the Prague mid-century avant-garde. The Six Miniatures by Hanns Aldo Schimmerling are very abstract, atonal, in the absence of central diatonicism sense, and reminiscent of Webern, in particular. This is a dense and ethereal set with some moments of genuine mystery and foreboding. Schimmerling is an interesting figure in that he studied composition with the very different Alexander Zemlinsky and emigrated to the United States just before Hitler overran the Czech Republic. Both Ponc and Schimmerling were colleagues of Alois Hába. Hába’s Nonett II has a very unique quality within this collection. It really resembles early Stravinsky in places, both in its punctuated rhythmic patterns that conjure up Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagete but also in the reliance of modal harmonies (Dorian is the most prominent).

The one composer anyone may have already heard of here is Viktor Ullmann. He is also the one composer in this set whose music was published and heard outside of eastern Europe; while the others were largely unpublished or forgotten entirely. His style is characteristically a bit of a cross between Schoenberg and Mahler; while his only formal training as a composer was with Schoenberg. The Six Songs, Op.17  for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra is based on poetry by Swiss poet Albert Steffen. This is a very fine work that was nearly lost forever were it not for the present performing ensemble, Ebony Band, asking orchestrator Geert van Keulen to arrange Ullmann’s original for soprano and piano. Soloist Barbara Kozelj does this atmospheric cycle great service.

I greatly admire and appreciate the work of the Ebony Band for both its performing prowess as well as for the important historical aspects of this music. The main thought I carried away from this recording is that, in general, the music itself is a bit esoteric and may not have wide appeal. These are all good works that deserve to be heard, however, and the surround sound recording is superb.

—Daniel Coombs