CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Thursday, April 5, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Vogler Quartet
Ute Lemper

Berlin Nights / Paris Days: The Art of Chanson

Zankel Hall
The Vogler Quartet team with Ute Lemper, a master of German cabaret music, to capture the acerbic wit of Weimar-era songs by Kurt Weill and the lesser known—though no less intriguing—Hanns Eisler. They also turn their attention to the evocative, powerful ballads of latter-day Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel and fiery Argentinian tango from Astor Piazzolla.
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The Program

ERWIN SCHULHOFF
Selections from Five Pieces for String Quartet

Born in Prague, Erwin Schulhoff moved to Vienna, where modernism flourished under the unofficial watchful eye of Arnold Schoenberg. But his time there was soon curtailed by the advent of World War I, during which he was conscripted into the Austrian army. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the radical changes resulting from the peace treaties, Schulhoff turned away from post-Romanticism. Dadaism, 12-tone composition, and dances—such as the foxtrot and ragtime—began to pass into Schulhoff's language.

His Five Pieces for String Quartet, written in 1923, are a cabaret-like showcase for the many styles and sounds Schulhoff heard during his early years. Although the inspiration for "Alla Valse Viennese" is the lilting triple-time dance of Viennese yore, Schulhoff looks back through a smashed sonic mirror. Jarring harmonies and themes played in parallel give an aloof sheen. There is a more sultry quality to "Alla Serenata," recalling the eerie night music found in Bartók's string quartets. "Alla Czeca" harnesses the energetic ferocity of his idol Janáček's music for strings.

The final two movements of display further facets of Schulhoff's chameleon-like character. Inspired by these popular dance forms, he recasts their rhythms and rhetoric. The serene introduction to "Alla Tango Milonga" belies the feral nature of the dance itself, and the complex interchange of voices provides a preview to the music of Piazzolla. In "Alla Tarantella," the quartet is possessed by spectral motor rhythms. Like his compatriot Janáček, Schulhoff builds an increasingly intense structure out of the repetition and interchange of these tiny rhythmic cells, yet the sheer verve of these pieces is very much Schulhoff's own.


—Gavin Plumley

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

LOUIS MAITRIER
"Elle Fréquentait la Rue Pigalle"

Cabaret began in France at the end of the 19th century, when the art form flourished at the Chat Noir in Montmartre. Alcohol and entertainment mixed with ironic stage acts, providing a template for half a century of sadness and smiles before the Nazis curtailed the genre across occupied Europe. Despite such political proscriptions, French cabaret lived on after the war through chansonniers, including Charles Trenet, Jacques Brel, Édith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, and Serge Gainsbourg.

Louis Maitrier became a central fixture of the Parisian chanson scene. Working with the talented lyricist Raymond Asso—who became Piaf's lover—his 1939 "Elle Fréquentait la Rue Pigalle" encapsulates the art of cabaret. Famous in Piaf's pathos-wrung version, this story of a young prostitute is cast in melancholic tones. Its parlando style follows the rhythms of spoken French before giving way to a melodic refrain. Although the song's ballad-like structure lends ironic distance, there is no denying its power.


—Gavin Plumley

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

MICHEL EMER
"L'Accordéoniste"

Like Maitrier, Michel Emer came to prominence through Piaf. Born in St. Petersburg, he eventually settled in Paris. The year after Maitrier's "Elle Fréquentait la Rue Pigalle," Emer penned his most famous song for Piaf and would go on to compose a further 20 compositions for the "kid sparrow." The protagonist of Emer's ditty is also a prostitute, though the metrical delivery and repetitive motifs harken back to happy old variety acts.


—Gavin Plumley

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

KURT WEILL
"Surabaya Johnny" from Happy End; "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" from Die Dreigroschenoper

Born the son of a synagogue cantor in Dessau, Kurt Weill made his name in Berlin, a thriving experimental hub during the 1920s and '30s. It was only the advent of the far right that threatened the loose tongues and (according to the Nazis) even looser morals of its "cultural Bolsheviks." Although Weill had thoroughbred training—studying with Engelbert Humperdinck, the composer of Hänsel und Gretel—it was his meeting with Bertolt Brecht in 1927 that began his most successful and intrepid period of composition.

During the twilight years of the Weimar Republic, Weill and Brecht worked tirelessly on a series of theater projects, cantatas, and workers' choruses. Happy End was their 1929 show that opened at Berlin's Theater am Schiffbauerdamm. A Weimar Guys and Dolls, "Surabaya Johnny" is a Salvation Army girl's lament as her beloved returns to a life of crime. But rather than Sarah Brown's heartfelt girl-next-door, Weill casts his heroine's protestation in more swinging terms. Happy End sadly never proved as big a success as their earlier Die Dreigroschenoper (1928). Written to satisfy an actor's whim just before the show opened in Berlin, "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" (a.k.a "Mack the Knife") became Weill's most famous song. It's an ironic ballad and is played as the prologue to the story. Heard in Brecht's original text, the song has much more bite than Marc Blitzstein's oddly suave English translation.


—Gavin Plumley

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

HANNS EISLER
"Der Graben"; "Über den Selbstmord"; "Ballade vom Wasserrad"

Although Weill dominated the Weimar stage, Hanns Eisler and Brecht also built a successful collaboration. Eisler was born in Leipzig and moved to Vienna as a child. Taught by Schoenberg, the two later fell out of favor with one another due to Eisler's stringent Marxist views. His early Palmström—written to accompany a performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire—betrayed a flair for irony. When Eisler moved away to Berlin, he was able to exploit that natural talent. But as the Nazis rose to power, both Weill and Eisler's work became anathema. Proscribed throughout occupied Europe, the two had to leave for America. Weill thrived on Broadway, just as the musical hit its stride, while Eisler settled in California with many other European émigrés. After the war, questions about un-American activities forced Eisler back to Germany, where the new communist DDR welcomed him with open arms. Working with Brecht once more and writing for the theater, Eisler worked much as he had before the Nazi apocalypse.

Even his working relationship with actor Ernst Busch carried on, and he became the chief exponent of Eisler's catalogue. "Der Graben" is from a 1959 collection of songs set to poems by Kurt Tucholsky, who had died of a drug overdose in 1935. Although the poem offers a harsh warning, Eisler's unpretentious song resounds with genuine regret. Even when collaborating with the acerbic Brecht on "Über den Selbstmord," Eisler is more like Mahler than Weill in style, while "Ballade vom Wasserrad" evokes the ballads of Schubert and Larcher.


—Gavin Plumley

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

NIKITA BOGOSLOVSKY
"Temnaya Noch"

Like Eisler, Nikita Bogoslovsky received unbeatable classical training. Born in St. Petersburg in 1913, he studied with Alexander Glazunov. Yet despite his establishment education, Bogoslovsky focussed his attentions on emerging forms, such as popular song and film scores. His music was increasingly fashionable during the war years and "Temnaya Noch"—sung by the glamorous Mark Bernes in the 1942 film Dva boytsa (Two Soldiers)—became a standard. You can hear the influence of French chanson in this lilting caprice, and Bogolovsky's natural affinity for all things French was confirmed when he was made vice-president of the USSR-France Society in 1965.


—Gavin Plumley

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

CHAVA ALBERSTEIN
"Stiller Abend"; "Ikh shtey unter a Bokserboym"

Like her European predecessors, the Israeli singer-songwriter Chava Alberstein maintains a poetic approach to politics through music. Born in Poland but raised in Israel, she rose to prominence within the local music scene by entertaining Israeli Defense Force troops. Later, she adopted a more critical view of the Israeli government's policy towards Palestine and has striven for Arab-Israeli accord. Her setting of Itzik Manger's poem is characteristically self-questioning. Although rhythmically akin to pop music and using those insistent refrains, Alberstein's Klezmer-like harmonies reflect back on a century of song and Jewish history.

This outwardly folksy "Ikh shtey unter a Bokserboym" speaks of the troubled aftermath of the Second World War. The verdant imagery of Ziame Telesin's poem evokes newfound freedom, but Alberstein's introspective idiom underlines the trials and tragedies of getting to that point.


—Gavin Plumley

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA
"Yo Soy María"; "Oblivion"; "La última grela"

Argentina's Astor Piazzolla may have been far away from the atrocities that terrorized the other composers within this program, but his music professes surprising affinity with their history. Like many before him, he had to leave his homeland due to the increasing pressures of working under a military dictatorship.

Piazzolla's musical style is thoroughly indebted to Argentina's tango tradition. But a love of Bach, jazz, and an intensely chromatic harmonic make him a fitting South American counterpart to Weill and Eisler. Like them, Piazzolla melded the popular song tradition with classical style. "Yo Soy María" is taken from his 1968 "tango opera." The nascent passions of the tango idiom lend themselves well to this outspoken genre, harkening back to Bizet's Carmen. After María's fervor, Piazzolla's melodic gift comes to the fore in "Oblivion," where Parisian laissez-faire breathes through its falling lines. An even more regretful tone permeates "La última grela," where Latin style mixes with Emer's "L'Accordéoniste."


—Gavin Plumley

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

JACQUES BREL
"Chanson de Jacky"; "Ne me quitte pas"; "Amsterdam"

Returning to French-speaking Europe proper, Jacques Brel became the post-War period's answer to chanson. Born in Belgium, he was prominent in Paris during the 1950s, exclusively singing his own material. His US debut at Carnegie Hall in 1963 prompted a period of international touring. While later covers—such as "Seasons in the Sun" (translated from the 1961 hit "Le moribond")—offer a simplistic view of his songs, Brel's lyrics and music were often highly complex. Rhythmically multifaceted and often exploring the social and moral issues of the day, Brel influenced artists as diverse as Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone.

The 1965 "Chanson de Jacky" is a rich showcase of Brel's talents. Its repetitive marching figure provides the bedrock for Brel's bullet-like run of consonants. The winding introduction to "Ne me quitte pas," suggesting a somewhat atonal style, prefaces his famous remorseful song. Recalling the English folksong "Greensleeves," "Amsterdam" tells of the sailors on leave. Its imagined demimonde world provides an effective recollection of the Paris of Emer and Maitrier and the Berlin of Weill and Eisler.


—Gavin Plumley

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

DeWitt Stern with tagline 112x27
Sponsored by DeWitt Stern Group, Inc.
This performance is part of Signatures.

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