SCHONTHAL Reverberations. Fragments from a Woman’s Diary. Variations in Search of a Theme. Sonata Breve. Sonatensatz · Gary Steigerwalt (pn) · CAMBRIA CD-1109 (71:58)
SONGS BY WOMEN · Susan Gonzalez (sop); Marcia Eckert (pn) · LEONARDA LE-352 (68:14)
SCHONTHAL Eight Early Songs. J. H. SUSKIND Six Songs to Poetry of Yeats. E. FÁBREGAS Five Songs. E. R. AUSTIN A Birthday Bouquet
Ruth Schonthal is one of the composers whose artistic and personal development was indelibly affected by her direct experience of the Holocaust, although her name rarely appears in discussions of “Entartete Musik.” Now nearly 80 years old, she was born in Hamburg, and began composing at the age of five. Not long afterward she was accepted at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin as its youngest student. In 1938 she escaped with her family to Stockholm, where she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music. Three years later she was taken to Mexico, where she studied with Manuel Ponce. There she enjoyed some success and, while still in her early 20s, attracted the attention of Paul Hindemith, who arranged for her to receive a scholarship to study with him at Yale. She graduated summa cum laude from Yale in 1948, and has remained here in the United States. Over the years Schonthal has composed a substantial body of work, while struggling to build a reputation as a composer in her adopted homeland, within a culture notably unreceptive to composers of “serious” music, with the additional handicap of being a woman. It is typically and ruefully ironic that within the past few years Germany has awarded her numerous honors, the German publisher Furore Verlag has assumed exclusive publication rights to her music, and a full-length biographical study by musicologist Martina Helmig has been published by Olms Verlag.
Schonthal’s music reflects considerable stylistic breadth and technical sophistication within an orientation rooted in Germanic romanticism, while embracing polytonal, atonal, and aleatoric elements as they suit her needs. Many of her pieces seem autobiographical, highlighting her identity as a composer-in-exile. But the most salient characteristic of her music is a kind of juxtaposition of styles as a means of reflecting complex psychological processes. The program notes to the Cambria release state that Schonthal “envisions her work as a mirror held up to a world full of complex human emotions.” The music often suggests memories of tender innocence recalled through a veil of harsh, bitter disillusionment. This is most readily apparent in the work that seems to be one of her most successful efforts: Reverberations, or Nachklänge, a 14-minute piece for prepared piano, composed during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Fragments of simple, tender melodies are refracted through sour, “wrong-note” harmonies, and the clatter and shatter of the prepared piano, creating a haunting, dreamlike impression-“beauty in ruins” is her own characterization. The effect suggests something Gavin Bryars might create if he were a German Holocaust survivor.
Similar effects are achieved, though without the prepared piano, in the Variations in Search of a Theme (1975) and the more ambitious Fragments from a Woman’s Diary (1982), a set of 19 short, deftly and gracefully pianistic yet not terribly difficult character pieces that suggest a complex, emotionally ambiguous stream-of-consciousness. The earlier piece is based on the device of starting with rather remote, oblique variations that gradually work their way toward a concluding statement of the simple theme. My chief criticism of these works is that they are composed of discrete little Albumblätter, rather than unfolding as continuous entities, which would better achieve the desired effects.
Also included on the Cambria release are two shorter pieces, each about seven minutes long and composed in 1973: Sonata Breve and Sonatensatz. The former is much more traditional in style and structure: a neo-romantic extension of the Germanic romantic classicism of Brahms. Though relatively conventional in approach, it is an extremely satisfying work that invites and rewards deeper acquaintance. Sonatensatz resembles the other pieces discussed here, suggesting a delicate, vulnerable soul, hardened and twisted by brutal reality. However, here the ideas are integrated, rather than juxtaposed, presented with a serious-almost ponderous-reflectiveness that again calls Brahms to mind.
Gary Steigerwalt’s performances were previously issued on LP during the early 1980s on the Orion label. The sound quality was somewhat murky and diffuse for its time even then. Both Reverberations and Variations in Search of a Theme are included on a beautifully recorded German CD (Academy 0085162ACA), featuring fine performances by Schonthal aficionada Adina Mornell. However, I find Steigerwalt’s renditions to be a touch more sensitive and subtly nuanced, enough so that I prefer this Cambria re-issue to the more recent recording.
The eight Early Songs, composed in Sweden and Mexico during the early 1940s, are settings of Rilke poems filled with symbolic, expressive images that cry out for musical interpretation. They are conventional romantic Lieder in style and approach, described with some embarrassment by Schonthal as “youthful sins,” suppressed until recently, when “inquiries and requests made me pull them out of oblivion.” I must say, no embarrassment or apology is necessary: These are beautiful songs, sure to appeal to anyone with a taste for the genre.
Although the other composers featured on Songs by Women are not familiar (to me, anyway), their music is worth knowing, for the most part. Now in her mid 70s, Joyce Hope Suskind grew up in New York, and has performed as an oboist, pianist, and singer. She is deeply devoted to the poetry of Yeats, and the six recent settings presented here comprise sensitive interpretations of the texts, expressed through the novel and inventive use of a tonal and only occasionally dissonant neo-romantic language. Born in Spain in 1955, Elisenda Fábregas is represented by five settings of Lorca poems composed in 1986. These too are very attractive songs, somewhat impressionistic in their harmonic language. Only the four little songs by Elizabeth Austin failed to make a positive impression.
Soprano Susan Gonzalez and pianist Marcia Eckert are both on the faculty of Hunter College in New York. Ms. Gonzalez has a pleasant voice, with accurate intonation, for the most part, although her interpretations are a bit over-cautious and constrained. Ms. Eckert offers reliable, fluent support.