West Cork Chamber Music Festival gets the Hollywood treatment

Composer Hanns Eisler wrote the `Hollywood Songbook' while in enforced exile from Germany

English pianist Julius Drake: expressive vehemence

English pianist Julius Drake: expressive vehemence

 

Francis Humphrys, director of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, has chalked another piece of music off his bucket list. Sunday night saw the festival give its first performance – and probably the first Irish performance – of the Hollywood Songbook by Hanns Eisler.  

Eisler wrote this collection of songs while living and working in Hollywood, in enforced exile from his native Germany. His work had been prohibited by the Nazis not because he was Jewish, but because he was a Communist. 

His Communism became a problem in Hollywood, too, and he was called before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. He was a successful film composer. Two of the films he wrote scores for were nominated for Oscars, and he co-authored an important book on film composing. With that kind of profile he was a perfect target for the committee.

He was questioned in September 1947, and during his appearance the committee’s chief investigator, Robert E Stripling, started to read out a translation of an article Eisler had written for Sovietskaya Musica in 1933. Its title was “For a Solid Front of all Proletarian and Revolutionary Musicians”.

Eisler objected to the reading of “old articles from a different time” on the basis that “it can only create a kind of hysteria against me”. Stripling explained that his purpose was “to show that Mr Eisler is the Karl Marx of Communism in the musical field and he is well aware of it”. To which Eisler retorted: “I would be flattered”.

 That sharpness, that need to stand up and be counted, to hold firm to his ideals, also informs the pithy, pungent, often bitter Hollywood Songbook settings of texts by Bertolt Brecht. There are images of friends “Helplessly sunk into the swamp/I pass by daily,” of the swollen veins on the mask of a Japanese demon proving “how strenuous/It must be to be evil”. Radios carry “the reports of my enemies’ victories”. 

Brecht and Eisler were long-standing collaborators, but Eisler’s handling of the Hollywood texts was highly selective. He pruned away anything he didn’t want, so that the words he set became something between a scrapbook and an intimate diary.

 The settings are as concise as the texts themselves. There’s no spare flesh in the music, with some of the songs almost appearing to stop before a musical gesture has been fully completed. The concision gives a great sense of urgency.

Sunday’s performance by German baritone Holger Falk and English pianist Julius Drake was as committed as the music itself. Falk took all the bleakness, blackness and irony in his stride; Drake matched with an expressive vehemence that seemed entirely in place. There was one lapse, though, by the festival itself, which provided texts and translations but turned off lights so that they could not be read comfortably.

Birdsong

The West Cork Festival’s first weekend included three highly distinctive works for solo string instruments. Cork composer Sam Perkin’s specially commissioned Language for Solo Violin (Miranda Cuckson) is a Messiaen-inspired exploration of human language.

Messiaen’s starting point was birdsong. Perkin’s is the musicality of human speech as it is found in different languages – his original sources are clearly identified for all 10 sections of the piece. Perkin’s approach is a lot more abstract than, say, Steve Reich’s in Different Trains or Roger Doyle’s in The Idea and Its Shadow.

The lilting patterns of the opening, for which the source is Russian, seem more than a little plain, even stark, and the music takes quite a while to warm up, needing, it seems, a full-on engagement with virtuosity before it achieves real musical traction. 

It could be that Perkin as a composer is that bit more fascinated with his processes than I am as a listener. And Salvatore Sciarrino’s Six Caprices for solo violin, now more than 40 years old, definitely struck other listeners in a similar way. 

Among the highlights of the West Cork festival’s opening weekend were the beautifully-gauged reserve of the Pacifica Quartet playing Shostakovich
Among the highlights of the West Cork festival’s opening weekend were the beautifully-gauged reserve of the Pacifica Quartet playing Shostakovich

Borderline inaudible

Cuckson’s faithfulness to the often borderline inaudible dynamics suggested by the composer may be part of the problem. And I did hear from one listener seated well away from the performer that most of the performance was inaudible. 

Sciarrino’s title invokes the Caprices of Paganini, as does the extreme of virtuosity his pieces require. The sounds are mostly no more than a shimmer, the flurry of the performer’s fingers and bow at times more like a theatrical dumbshow than a musical statement. But the inversion of Paganinian virtuosity, the transmutation of 19th century display into a ghostly 20th century recreation does have an undeniable draw.

It was interesting to think about Perkin and Sciarrino when confronted on Sunday morning with three of Bach’s Cello Suites performed with arresting mastery by Pieter Wispelwey. After all, until Pablo Casals brought these great works into the concert hall and the recording studio, they were still widely regarded as dry studies rather than the expressive wellspring we know them to be today. Will time bring a similar universal recognition for Perkin and Sciarrino?

Shostakovich

Among the other highlights of the festival’s opening weekend were the beautifully-gauged reserve of the Pacifica Quartet in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 11, and the fluid contouring of Viviane Hagner in Debussy’s Violin Sonata with Huw Watkins at the piano. Saturday’s Young Composers’ Forum was led by Donnacha Dennehy, whose approach  with four composers – Emma O’Halloran, Martin Keary, Daniel McDermott and Alex Dowling – was engaging in the fullest sense of the word. 

He praised, he probed, he challenged. He drew the composers out by being an inquisitive colleague, one who seemed as fascinated by their work as they themselves were. I doubt if any of the composers involved were left unchanged by the encounter.  mdervan@irishtimes.com

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