Paul Dessau: Chamber music (MDG/Deutschland)
Like Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, and with equal reluctance, Paul Dessau left McCarthyist America in the late 1940s to settle in the austere and oppressive German Democratic Republic. All three men were tainted by having enjoyed life in the capitalist West. Dessau, the least famous, was attacked by party inquisitors and forced to write propaganda hymns in the requisite Socialist Realism style.
In the US, he had been reduced to working on a chicken farm before Brecht brought him to Hollywood, helping him get film score work while playing off his insecurity against Eisler’s in a sadistic game that continued after their return to East Germany. Dessau sought refuge in teaching small children and composing chamber music. Since his death in 1979, followed by the collapse of the GDR, most of his music has faded into oblivion.
This fascinating album is full of unknown gems, including a piano suite on Jewish religious themes, written for a US community in 1946, and clarinet-piano variations on ‘an American folksong’, which turns out to be I Had a Little Nut Tree. Aaron Copland, eat your heart out.
There is a marvellously smoky suite for alto saxophone and piano, as well as an early concertino for violin, flute, clarinet and horn, both of which exhibit Dessau as a composer of fizzing vitality and originality. We need to hear a lot more of him.
This recital, exquisitely delivered by the Leipzig-based Ensemble Avantgarde, is a tantalising taster. I’m counting Dessau among my lockdown discoveries and will dig down next into his operas.
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