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Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Hanns Eisler are two composers more talked about than actually represented in the music world. Both men, when mentioned at all, are known for their courageous political stand against Fascism, rather than the music they created. Eisler's primary musical notariety was achieved by succeeding Kurt Weill as Bertold Brecht's musical collaborator. Hartmann was better known in his life as the post-war champion of a new music revival in Germany than for his own work. Unlike most other German musical opponents of the Nazi regime, Hartmann did not emmigrate and criticize events in his country from a safe distance. Rather he stayed and in his own fashion actively protested the fascism and anti-Semitism he saw daily in his country. He even lived within miles of the Dachau prison camp and was rather vocal in his criticism of the activities going on there. Eisler, as a Jew and a Marxist, was doubly suspect in Germany and quite honestly was lucky just to be deported from the country. He settled in the US until the 1950s, when his Mazrxist leanings attracted the attention of America's own fascist, Joseph McCarthy and he was deported back to East Germany. There Eisler became instrumental in a revival of German cultural life, though his Expressionist musical aesthetic did not endear him to the Stalinist East German government. Hartmann too was instrumental in the revival of his country's cultural life and served as a champion of younger serialist composers such as Nono and Stockhausen. In return for his kindness he was ignored and pronounced an irrelevant composer by that generation and his works were eclipsed.
All of this makes for dramatic backstory, but the real value of a composer is the music that is left behind. Judging by the three works on this CD, both men produced some very powerful music, though not equally so. The Eisler quartet is a solid work, written in an expressionist idiom that recalls the quartet music of Alban Berg. The work is twelve-tone in concept and seems tightly argued. Cast in two movements, it ommits the traditional sonata form and it's inherent "drama" which further align it with Berg's Lyric Suite. For anyone whose knowlege of Eisler rests on his political and "agitprop" songs will be quite surprised at this almost" orthodox" Viennese serial piece. But ultimately the work is forgettable, a minor work for the composer, whose most important pieces are smaller and stradle the line between popular and high art in the manner of early Weill.
The Hartmann quartets are a different story. Both works are seminal pieces in the composer's output. The First quartet was produced in the first year of the Nazi regime and is infused with the angst and defiance that characterized the composer's anti-fascist attitude. It is also the first work that Hartmann gave an opus number and thus can be considered his first mature score. It never quite rises above the evident influences in the work, particularly the Berg Lyric Suite and the Bartok String Quartets. The idiom is dissonant but tonal in the manner of the Bartok Third and Fourth quartet. Hartmann's rhythms and melodic inflections also show a great debt to Bartok, and in the slow movement Kodaly. Still, the work is fresh, shows signs of Hartmann's mature voice.
The Second Quartet is the masterpiece on this recording. Written in the first years after the fall of the Third Reich, the piece is deeply felt, alternating between the Elegaic (Hartmann had witnessed the liberation of Dachau and saw first hand the state of the victims of Hitler) and the defiant. The influence of Bartok may still be detected if you care to search for it (and it's inevitable that critics will bring that up, since Bartok always comes up when discussing 20th century string quartets) but it is subsumed in Hartmann's own language, which also gives nods to Schonberg, Berg, and even Hindemidth, along with a deep understanding of the German Romantic tradition. The language is chromatic, but not serial or atonal at all, and the impact of the work is powerful. It stands along with Hartmann's larger symphonic works as an eloquent testimony to humanism in the face of monsterous evil.
The performances by the Vogler Quartet are excellent. The Hartmann has one disc of recorded competition but the Eisler is currently represented only by this disc. The sonics are excellent and the disc is accompanied by an unusually detailed and informative note. As an aside, this is the first Nimbus disc I've seen in several years and I had thought the company, which was among my favorite classical labels in the late 80s and early 90s, had gone belly up. I am very happy to see them come back from the brink of ruin. Nimbus has always shown a willingness to record excellent ensembles doing out of the way repertoire in the best possible sonic environment. I'm hoping that this disc and others help bring renewed vigor to a label that has always stood for the highest quality in a wide variety of musical styles.