We will begin with an open letter to Anna Prohaska:
Dear Ms. Prohaska,
Please please please please please come and give a recital in New York.
Now, on to the discussion. This is a recital I would not have been immediately drawn to had I not so thoroughly enjoyed Prohaska’s singing in the recording of Die Entführung aus dem Serail that I listened to recently. It’s called “Behind the Lines” and the songs are about war – specifically, they center on World War One, although some of the material comes from much earlier – as far back as Beethoven – and much later, as with Kurt Weill’s Walt Whitman songs, which were written in the 1940s.
Prohaska’s command of character and ability to shift the color of her singing to evoke different moods is never in doubt. Hanns Eisler’s “Kriegslied eines Kindes” (“A child’s war song”) is appropriately childish, for example, and in Liszt’s “Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher” (“Joan of Arc at the stake”) Joan is similarly distinct.
But what is most interesting about this album is the contrasts the recital creates – the cumulative effect is to make some very familiar music sound very different. Although I am a great fan of early 19th-century German songs, what I liked best about this recital was the more modern material. The songs by Charles Ives and Kurt Weill were powerful, both in themselves, and in the color they lent to the other material. The same is true of some of the even older songs that are mixed in with the rest.
To take an example, the first item on the program is the traditional “Es geht ein dunkle Wolk herein” (“a dark cloud is coming”), which dates from the sixteenth or seventeenth century (I had to google, and the internet is contradictory on this point, although it does seem to be associated with the Thirty Years War, which happened between 1618 and 1648 and reduced much of Germany to ruin). It is followed by Beethoven’s “Die Trömmel gerühret”, about a young woman hearing the sound of the drums and wishing she were a young man so she could go off to war. The first ends up functioning as a prelude to the second, giving the Beethoven song a much darker, foreboding feel than it might otherwise have. Other performances of the Beethoven that I’ve heard give the impression of a young, innocent 19th century girl wishing she could rush off to war too, but it’s to the wars as someone in the early 19th century might have imagined – heroic, dashing, perhaps tragic, but exciting. Here, again, the mood is darker. The war is far worse than the young woman might imagine.
Just as the experience of WWI shattered some of the romantic notions of war held by people of the late 19th century, the later songs about war in this recital, many of them written by people of a generation to have seen the horrors of the 1910s first-hand, add a powerful layer of irony to some of the more straightforwardly romantic material from decades earlier.
And in some cases, this contrast merely brings out something that is already there. Mahler’s “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” is achingly, beautifully sad – especially when followed by Weill’s harsher “Beat! beat! drums!” Prohaska and her pianist, Eric Schneider, have done something really interesting and beautiful with this program – it’s more than worth hearing.