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A new album reflects a composer's stubborn versatility
by Seth Colter Walls

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- After a difficult period of exile in the United States that lasted for much of the 1940s, Bertolt Brecht was ready to work with kindred spirits again. And in composer Paul Dessau, he recognized a fellow burr under the saddle.

Describing a 1949 production of his play “Mother Courage and Her Children” in East Berlin, Brecht wrote that Dessau’s settings of its songs were “not meant to be particularly easy,” adding that the music “left something to be supplied by the audience; in the act of listening they had to link the voices with the melody.”

This amounted to high praise from a playwright known for his theory of the “alienation effect” in the theater. And as Brecht’s troupe, the Berliner Ensemble, blossomed in the years that followed, he drew Dessau into more projects.

Today, though, Dessau (1894-1979) is relatively obscure — especially compared with Brecht, and perhaps because of how much he diverged from broader musical trends. He swerved between hummable melody and chromatic barrage, not striving for the toe-tapping immediacy of Brecht’s best remembered musical collaborator, Kurt Weill.

Yet Dessau was also versatile. In the decades before his work with Brecht, Dessau served as an assistant under conductor Otto Klemperer. He wrote music for the German edition of an early cartoon by Walt Disney — and composed scores for the so-called mountain films of Arnold Fanck.

Such wide-ranging experience may have contributed to Dessau’s self-assurance, even when collaborating with a controlling artist like Brecht. When working on “Mother Courage” for the Berliner Ensemble, for example, Dessau followed the playwright’s instructions to repurpose a familiar French melody for Mother Courage’s theme song but also alternated time signatures from one bar to the next to create loping momentum.

Dessau could also craft a tune all on his own. The dissimilar qualities of his music come into balance on a recent release, “Paul Dessau: Chamber Music,” by the German group Ensemble Avantgarde, on the MDG label. The music may occasionally be hard to love, but these vibrant performances are also hard to put down.

In the past, Dessau’s music has been programmed in ways that efface his mobility. A collection of his piano music can easily become uniformly grim. Or something like his punchy yet lighthearted first movement from the Suite for Alto Saxophone and Piano (1935) might be sequestered from works influenced by Schoenberg. Ensemble Avantgarde does Dessau a service by bringing so many facets of his style under the same banner.

Pianist Steffen Schleiermacher, the ensemble’s artistic director, said in an email interview that in preparing that saxophone-piano suite, the group had conceived of the first movement’s piano part as “a relentless machine, almost like a fast techno beat with clear accentuation on the counts.” The saxophone, he added, “is practically on a breathless escape from these beats — but it actually plays a relatively simple melody, however tilted and bent.”

The album also offers even lesser-known works, such as “Jewish Dance” (1940), for piano and violin, which rides an intriguing line between harmonic peculiarity and jovial effervescence.

“The piano voice in ‘Jewish Dance’ often seems to imitate a drum set,” Schleiermacher wrote. “Dessau likes to use narrow intervals here, especially in the bass range. This makes the exact pitch almost unrecognizable, and the result is a rather noisy sound. On the other hand, I have the impression in many places that Dessau actually thought rather tonally and then, in order to make the sound a bit sharper, added dissonant intervals at the end of the composition process.”

Brecht had occasional doubts about Dessau’s modernist inclinations. And the obstinate idiosyncrasies of his music were at times judged even more harshly. In 1951, East German authorities initially sought to block the Brecht-Dessau opera “The Condemnation of Lucullus” because of its “predominance of destructive, caustic dissonances and mechanical percussive noise.” But the work became a surprise success with its early audiences.

Brecht’s text for “The Condemnation of Lucullus” was based on a radio play of his in which the Roman general heads to the underworld to plead his case for entry to Elysium. (It doesn’t go well.) In addition to Brecht’s typical didacticism, there is a haunting passage for a fishwife whose son died in one of Lucullus’ campaigns.

She has come to the underworld in search of her son and discovers that the fallen soldiers “have forgotten their names / Which only served to line them up in the army / And are no longer needed here. And / their mothers / They do not wish to meet again / Because they let them go to the bloody war.” (A searing recording is available on Berlin Classics.)

Dessau’s spare scoring for this moment is a delicate depiction of resignation, though one that still hits with true operatic intensity. Some of the textures here seem not far removed from the Largo movement of Dessau’s much earlier, rarely heard concertino — for violin, flute, clarinet and horn — which opens Ensemble Avantgarde’s album.

Schleiermacher, comparing his group’s recording of the Largo with the scene from “Lucullus,” said that “there is indeed a certain similarity,” adding that both contain “echoes of liturgical recitative chants, almost psalmody.”

The specificity with which Dessau responded to such varied sources is something that baritone Dietrich Henschel also identifies, and prizes, in the composer’s works. “He asks the singer to be aware of the text,” Henschel said in a phone interview from Berlin.

Henschel was featured prominently on a 2000 album of Dessau’s lieder on the Orfeo label, on which he performs the composer’s settings of poetry by Brecht, as well as by François Villon, Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda.

Speaking in particular about the Neruda songs, written near the end of Dessau’s life, Henschel observed that the composer “always seems to be slightly more extreme than everybody else in his surroundings.”

“He had more power than a late Hindemith had,” Henschel added. “And he stayed powerful until he was very old.”

Henschel hears a chanson style in the earlier Villon pieces. “When performing, I get the feeling I should dance,” he said. But he added that, despite surface similarities to other music of the period — such as Brecht and Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” — each piece by Dessau bears the imprint of this composer’s strangeness.

“Even if he writes music in a popular style, he stays personal in his approaches,” Henschel said. “There is always an element — be it a very dirty harmony all of a sudden, or a beat where you don’t expect a beat, in the middle of something — where you find, OK, this is the Dessau element which gives a special color to it.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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