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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Political Music from Paul Dessau

available at Amazon
Dessau, Orchestral Works,
Epple / DSO Berlin
DESSAU Symphony No. 2. Symphony in one movement. In memoriam Bertolt Brecht. Danse et Chanson1. Examen et poème de Verlaine1, 2. Les Voix.1, 3 Eoger Epple, cond; German SO Berlin; Ksenija Lukic (sop)1; Manuela Bress (mez)2; Holger Groschopp (pn)3 Capriccio 5019 (69:36)

There are composers that I love to love for musico-biographical reasons. Most of the ‘lost generation’ of Viennese post-romantics—Korngold, Mittler, Zeisl, Marx—belong in that category, as do those composers that teetered between the post-romantic and the modern world without being part of the Second Viennese School or the avant-gardist movement. Braunfels, Toch, Křenek, and Hartmann come to mind. I would have thought that Paul Dessau (1894-1979) would be among that lot, but the generous selection of his orchestral works that Capriccio brings us—all new recordings made between 2004 and 2008 by the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin under Roger Epple—doesn’t do the trick. “In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht” wears its ever noble sentiment on its sleeves… or at least on the movement titles: “Lamento”, “War be damned”, “Epitaph”. A tedious, lurching, and extraordinarily dusty composition, it does more, alas, to damn the composer than mourn his friend. Joylessness would be excused given the occasion. But the idea that sorrow also, necessarily, translates into beauty—however well hidden or ‘difficult’—is solidly rejected by Dessau’s dirge. Berg’s Violin Concerto this ain’t!

Annoying is a highly subjective quality, but contrived and affected compositions like “Examen et poème de Verlaine” for soprano, mezzo, and orchestra make it difficult not to respond with a good rolling of the eyes. Dessau, always a steadfast supporter of the GDR’s dictatorship that afforded him a privileged life, was perhaps too much of a political composer—a species that sees its works age more rapidly and worse than others. In 26:4 James North writes of Dessau’s opera “Einstein”: “once [absorbed and appreciated], there is little of permanent musical value to draw you back again”. Agitprop as inspiration comes with a definite “best-before” date… which is one reason why I find Hanns Eisler’s biography much more appealing than most of his music.

It took me a long time to come to terms with genuinely disliking the Dessau pieces’ portentous plodding and self-importance, but apart from the clean, unfussy, and steadily moving Andante tranquillo of his Symphony in One Movement, there isn’t much that pleases the ears (or the intellect). The three works for voices—overt Spanish flavors in the two-minute “Dance & Chanson”—least so. The forced gaiety of the Andante contemplativo and the broodingly meandering Andante quasi Allegretto of the Second Symphony don’t enamor me, either. I could get used to the strident, pounding fourth movement, though, as well as the third movement “Dance”, an homage to Bartók in Bulgarian rhythm that Dessau added thirty years after composing the three other movements and publishing them as “Petit Suite symphonique” in exile in 1934.

That the DSO Berlin and Roger Epple perform these works with evident engagement is laudable. In fact, it’s what I love best about classical music today: Exploration of neglected, lost, dismissed, and forgotten works from all centuries are constantly unearthed by efforts such as these—affording us the opportunity to discover, re-discover, re-evaluate. This means an unprecedented amount of choice for music aficionados who can make up their own mind about what they like or don’t. The presence of lesser examples is not so a much lamentable side-effect of this trend, but a necessary element; hardly less enriching for being less pleasing. Sampling of bits of any CD is easy these days (Amazon, for example, offers snippets of the Dessau) and you might still like to hear for yourself if you are even mildly intrigued by Dessau’s musical kin Weill and Eisler.

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