Norman Lebrecht Album of the Week 16 Sept

Hanns Eisler: Ernste Gesänge - Lieder with piano by

Is there such a thing as a near-perfect record? Norman Lebrecht thinks so, listening to exiled composer Hanns Eisler's poignant, dramatic 'Serious Songs', sung with velveteen musicality by baritone Matthias Goerne.

Label: harmonia mundi

Rating 5

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Hanns Eisler was, in Gustav Mahler’s poignant phrase, three times homeless. Expelled from Vienna in 1918 for his sister’s communist activities, he left Berlin on Hitler’s ascent to settle in Hollywood, only to be evicted after the war when his turncoat sister denounced him as a communist to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 

Every song aches for an unattainable home

What followed was the fourth and most painful of Eisler’s exiles, a sojourn until death in the total-surveillance state of East Germany. Depressed and disillusioned, Eisler wrote a set of Serious Songs for baritone and instrumental ensemble, finishing it shortly before he died in August 1962. His texts veer from the dark introspection of film-director Berthold Viertel’s ‘Sadness’ to the barely disguised dismay of an ode to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party. His musical language is closer to Mahler than to Schoenberg, whose pupil he had been. Every song aches for an unattainable home. 

The German baritone Matthias Goerne articulates Eisler’s anguish with crisp diction couched in a velveteen musicality. More even than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who took up these songs half a century ago, Goerne goes to the heart of pain without a trace of pity and with sudden flashes of wit. He turns wilder and more dramatic in a set of Bertolt Brecht songs for voice and piano, accompanied by Thomas Larcher, who also performs Eisler’s earliest work, a 1923 piano sonata dedicated to Schoenberg. The sound is exemplary and the cover image arresting; this is a near-perfect record. 

Artists: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Thomas Larcher (piano), Ensemble Resonanz

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific commentator on music and cultural affairs and an award-winning novelist. See his blog Slipped Disc.