For many, he’s just another famous representative of the Belle Époque, but there are few people that really know much about him, let alone about his music. He went down in history as the lover of Marcel Proust, but Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) was much more than that. And here is a 4 CD set of his melodies that allows you to rediscover the man and his music afresh
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Hahn was the son of a German-Jewish father and a Venezuelan mother of Spanish-Basque origin. Apart from being a pianist and composer, Hahn was a highly esteemed conductor; know among other things for his Mozart interpretations. He was also a critic, writing for the newspaper Le Figaro; he wrote books on music, and in 1945 he was appointed director of the Paris Opéra.
When he arrived in Paris – on his own – he was but four years old. He was sent there because his father was threatened by the politics of president Antonio Guzmán Blanco. At the age of 11 Hahn began to study music at the Paris conservatory and became a student of Jules Massenet.
The young Reynaldo Hahn (l.) and his lover Marcel Proust
Hahn’s career florished mostly in Paris and in aristocratic circles, he was a welcomed guest in the world of salons, most notably that of the eccentric Princess Mathilde (Napoleon’s niece),accompanying himself on the piano as he sang arias by Jacques Offenbach. At the age of eight, Hahn composed his first songs. And of course he sang it, too. As he did his many other songs that followed over the years.
Marcel Proust famously wrote about Hahn and his singing: “His head a little thrown back, his mouth mournful and slightly indignant, from where flowed, rhythmically, the most beautiful, the saddest and warmest voice that never existed.”
Reynaldo Hahn sitting at the piano, painted by Lucie Lambert in 1907.
Jean Cocteau added: “He sang with a cigarette positioned in the corner of his mouth, delivering his delightful voice from the other part, the eyes painting towards the sky.”
Hahn composed more than 100 songs that are rarely performed today. Why?
Don’t ask me, because I find them wonderful. All of them. And that is something everyone can now experience thanks to Palazzetto Bru Zane who have issued them in a box set, many of them in world premiere recordings.
Just listen to the song cycle Chansons grises based on poems by Paul Verlaine. What a discovery it is to hear these for the first time!
In the beginning I was worried that the songs might become a little monotonous with just one singer all the way through. But I was surprised and easily convinced of the opposite. Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis has precicely the right timbre to do justice to these songs: light, elegant, and very sensual in a way that made me think of Gerard Souzay, again and again.
Christoyannis’ interpretation is polished and perfect, and for every song he finds a different shading, a new tone. And my God – it is beautiful. For me, this is the CD of the year.
A caricature of Reynaldo Hahn as Beau Brummell by Rip (Georges Gabriel Thenon), 1931.
I recently read somewhere that we may expect more Hahn on disc soon. His operas L’Ile du Reve and La Carmelite are on the to-do list of Palazzetto Bru Zane, the be recorded live. All I can say about that is: please don’t forget to include his operettas Ciboulette (1923) or Brummell (1931) about the infamous British dandy Beau Brummel (1778-1840).
Not to mention Hahn’s other musical comedies, such as Mozart (1925) or O mon bel inconnu (1933), Une Revue (1925) and Malvina (1935). Some of them are available in historic French recordings, but a fresh and new interpretation would be very welcome.
English translation: Kevin Clarke
Weergaloze liederen van Reynaldo Hahn weergaloos uitgevoerd door Tassis Christoyannis en Jeff Cohen
EINE FLORENTINISCHE TRAGÖDIE
Bianca, the attractive wife of the merchant Simone is having an affair with the beautiful prince Guido Bardi. Simone catches them and challenges Guido to a duel with swords and eventually strangles him with his bare hands. His wife looks at him admirably: “Why didn’t you tell me that you were so strong?” In turn, Simone becomes aware of the beauty of his wife: “Why didn’t you tell me that you were so beautiful…”
Eine Florentinische Tragödie is based on the last play by Oscar Wilde. The beginning of the play is missing: the manuscript was stolen when Wilde went to prison. Zemlinsky solved the problem by composing a prologue to suggest the love scene between Bianca and Guido.
The opera, which premiered in 1917, provided a lot of gossip. “Eine autobiografische Tragödie” (An autobiographical Tragedy) was the headline of the Vienna Zeitung article by Edwin Baumgartner. Alma Mahler was not amused. She was certain that Zemlinsky had depicted her affair with Walter Groppius.
Mathilde Schönberg Zemlinsky with child
and with her husband
The Viennese public, on the other hand, thought it was about Schönberg and his wife Mathilde, Zemlinsky’s sister. Mathilde had left her husband for the young painter Richard Gerstl.
Mathilde Schönberg with child. Painting by Gerstl
When she returned to her husband, Gerstl committed suicide, he was only 25 years old
Richard Gerstl: ‘Selbstbildnis (“Akt in ganzer Figur’) from 1908. Courtesy Leopold Museum / Neue Galerie
All in the family in the best tradition, so to speak.
But what do you think: can you consider a fictional character in a work of art as the alter ego of its creator? Do you want to project a composer’s course of life onto the opera he has composed? How far do you involve life in art?
In a letter to Alma Mahler, Zemlinsky wrote that “a life had to be sacrificed in order to save the lives of two others.” But does this immediately make this the central theme of this opera, as many critics write? I don’t know.
One thing is certain: Eine Florentinische Tragödie can be listened to as an exciting, dark thriller, in which you do not sympathize with any of the characters.
In 1997 Decca included the opera in their now expired series ‘Entartete Musik’. Riccardo Chailly conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca 4551122).
In the same year there was also a (live) recording of the Cologne Gürzenich-Orchester conducted by their then chief conductor James Conlon (once on EMI).
Both recordings are good and I wouldn’t know which one to choose. Chailly’s orchestral sound is fuller and the strings sound more pleasant, but Conlon is undeniably more exciting, perhaps because it was recorded live.
The sound of the Cologne orchestra is more sensual, the sound of the RCO is darker. The singers are equally good in both recordings, although I find David Kuebler (Guido at Conlon) much more pleasant than the slightly shrill Heinz Kruse for Chailly.
Iris Vermillion for Chailly sounds nicer and warmer than Deborah Voigt for Conlon, but the latter has more sex appeal. In the role of Guido, Albert Dohmen (Chailly) is by far preferable to the not entirely idiomatic Donnie Ray Albert.
In 2010 Eine Florentinische Tragödie was recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the very inspiring leadership of Vladimir Jurowsky (LPO-0078). Albert Dohmen is back: his Simone sounds even more impressive than on Decca.
Sergey Skorokhodov’s Guido is a wimp and no match for the macho Dohmen. A Don Ottavio who will take on Hunding, so to speak. Heike Wessels (Bianca) is a mistake.
On YouTube you can find many (fragments) of live performances of the opera, among others from Lyon:
Frühlingsbegräbnis, the cantata that brought Zemlinsky into contact with Alma Mahler.
This cantata is (was?) available on CD, performed very well by the Gürzenich-Orchester in Cologne, conducted by James Conlon, with the soprano Deborah Voigt and the baritone Donnie Ray Albert as soloists. I love this work, it reminds me a little of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches requiem. The cantata was once coupled with several other unknown works by Zemlinsky, who all had their record premieres here: “Cymbeline”-Suite, after lyrics of Shakespeare and Ein Tanzpoem. Unfortunately…. Even YouTube has removed this recording, so second hand (or asking a friend who owns it for a copy) remains the only option.
Strangely enough Frühlingsbegräbnis by Conlon is on Spotify, but in combination with Psalms and Hochzeitgesang in a totally different performance:
On Spotify you can also listen to the recording under Antony Beaumont. The performance is less beautiful than that of Conlon but certainly not bad:
Cymbeline by Conlon can be found on You Tube:
James Conlon about Zemlinsky (and Ullmann):
“The music of Alexander Zemlinsky and Viktor Ullmann remained hidden for decades by the aftermath of the destruction caused by the Nazi regime […] Full recognition of their works and talent is still lacking, more than 70 years after their death […] Their lives and personal histories were tragic, but their music transcends it all. It is up to us to appreciate their story in its full historical and artistic context.”
Antony Beaumont: Zemlinsky
Michael Haas: Forbidden Music. The Jewish Composers banned by the Nazis
ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY. Part 1: The Man
Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 2: ‘Du bist mein Eigen.’
Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 3: dreams and the happiness that needs to be hidden