Konrad Jarnot, Marlis Petersen, Eric Schneider, Capriccio
In the 1930s, Walter Braunfels (1882-1954) ran afoul of the Nazi party in his native Germany. His music was condemned as “degenerate” because his father was Jewish, even though the composer was raised a Protestant and later converted to Catholicism. After World War II, Braunfels returned to his teaching post at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, but the moment for his largely tonal style of music had come and gone. Since his opera “Die Vögel,” based on Aristophanes’s “The Birds,” was revived in the 1990s, his music has enjoyed a rebirth, helped by the advocacy of his grandson Stephan Braunfels, a prominent architect in Germany. Conductors James Conlon, of the Los Angeles Opera, and Manfred Honeck, of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, are among his champions.
In addition to his operas, string quartets and symphonic music, there is now a recording of some of Braunfels’s songs, all composed before he was condemned by the Nazis, released earlier this year by Capriccio. No surprise to anyone who has already discovered the music of Braunfels, this disc, recorded for Deutschlandradio in 2011, is a winner. German soprano Marlis Petersen, who recorded one of the Braunfels songs on her outstanding disc of Goethe Lieder a few years ago, sparkles with irrepressible energy in the high-flying treble songs, but she’s also calm as a pool of silvered water in the charming “Die Nachtigall.” That song is part of the “Fragmente eines Federspiels,” or “Fragments of a Feather Play,” a set of eight songs devoted to different birds. Braunfels made a set of nine further bird songs, the “Neues Federspiel,” as a companion piece, also recorded by Petersen to the same beautiful effect.
Pianist Eric Schneider, last heard in Washington accompanying the soprano Christine Schäfer’s unforgettable “Winterreise,” is a versatile, sensitive and accomplished partner. English baritone Konrad Jarnot pales by comparison in the less exciting lower-voice songs; he’s at his best in the suave, subtle songs of Braunfels’s Op. 1 set. Next to Petersen’s exquisite native pronunciation, Jarnot’s German is still fine, with a chance to recite some English lines from Shakespeare (“If music be the food of love, play on”) in the introduction to “Was ihr wollt,” the Braunfels setting of the song texts from “Twelfth Night, or What You Will.” Unfortunately, while the Shakespeare lines receive a German translation, the booklet has only the German texts of the 40 other songs, without an English translation — the only negative about this excellent disc.
Orchestre de Paris, Paavo Järvi, cond. Erato
Last year, the French violinist Renaud Capuçon celebrated his 40th birthday by recording three concert pieces he first studied as a 12-year-old. Each is a chestnut, with a claim to be, depending on your point of view, either among the most beloved or threadbare of the violin repertory. Despite the fact that they’ve been recorded by just about everybody, it’s easy to hear why Capuçon wanted to have his say, too. Aided by the Orchestre de Paris and its music director, Paavo Järvi, these performances are fresh, galvanizing and, musically speaking, deeply satisfying.
The poised, masculine grace of Capuçon’s rhythmic finesse lends vigor and sanity to his strikingly original readings. He uses “tempo rubato” — literally “robbed time,” a term for stretching the music’s pulse for expressive purposes — subtly and never to excess. In the Habanera of Lalo’s signature “Symphonie espagnole,” for instance, scintillating wafts of nostalgia seem to emanate from a straight-spined flamenco hauteur. Capuçon’s ravishing sound and chaste phrasing in the andante allow the solo melismas to float above the orchestra, speaking with an urgency I’ve not heard from another violinist.
Passagework, in which Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” (gypsy airs) is particularly abundant, sounds neither exhibitionistic nor routine but organically geared to the prevailing sentiment. Capuçon’s and Järvi’s determination to keep things moving skirts the quagmires of bathos to which the piece is prone. Dead-center pitch and an exhilaratingly precise acceleration give the concluding fireworks an unusual sparkle.
Capuçon’s exquisite sound, with its judicious and varied vibrato, envelope Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. The athletic finale seems ready to burst with energy.
Here is proof that even the most picked-over “greatest hits” can still yield robust pleasures when approached with open ears, taste, a great deal of talent and, maybe most important, a sincerity of purpose that disdains cynicism.