Eisler: Deutsche Sinfonie

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LABELS: Decca Entartete Musik
WORKS: Deutsche Sinfonie
PERFORMER: Hendrikje Wangemann (soprano), Annette Markert (alto), Matthias Görne (baritone), Peter Lika (bass), Gert Gütschow, Volker Schwarz (speaker); Ernst Senff Choir, Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Lothar Zagrosek
This is the crucial work of Hanns Eisler’s output and an inspired choice for Decca’s ‘Entartete Musik’ series. Composed at intervals between 1935 and 1947 during his exile from Nazi Germany, with a brief epilogue added before its East Berlin premiere in 1959, the bitterly titled ‘German Symphony’ is an epic 11-movement canvas for speakers, singers, chorus and large orchestra. It encompasses the full range of Eisler’s art, from the agitprop populism of his political songs to the anguished and complex 12-note writing of the star Schoenberg pupil he was.


Decca’s subtitle ‘An Anti-Fascist Cantata’ was not Eisler’s, though the Deutsche Sinfonie is almost an oratorio (to texts mainly by Brecht) meditating on the Germany of class war, starvation, militarism and the concentration camps. But the three purely orchestral movements justify the symphonic dimension; and the ideological thrust isn’t merely anti-Nazi. Eisler, a lifelong Marxist, was horrified by the Hitler-Stalin pact, and his weirdly evocative ‘Peasant Cantata’ movement – its whispering voices furtively exchanging subversive thoughts – sets words by Ignazio Silone, a leading critic of ‘Red Fascism’. The work’s passionate and angry lament comes to a stunning double climax in the ninth-movement ‘Song of the Class Enemy’ (an excoriating 15-minute cantata in its own right) and the furious symphonic Allegro that follows it.


The only previous recording, an LP issued on the East German Eterna label, was a murky 1964 Leipzig Radio broadcast under Adolf Fritz Guhl (whose soloists, nevertheless, could have taught Decca’s capable but over-refined team something about drama and vitriol). But Eisler’s orchestral writing here emerges in full magnificence. Unreservedly recommended. Calum MacDonald