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Something of a personal journey for Christopher Purves, this is a programme that will raise a smile of appreciation from every listener.
Strauss composed six songs to the poetry of Otto Julius Bierbaum, the writer of popular verse who, with Wolzogen and Wedekind, founded the Überbrettl cabaret in Berlin at the turn of the century. Bierbaum’s anthology of light verse, called Deutsche Chansons, which he subtitled ‘Brettl-Lieder’—‘cabaret songs’—sold more than 30,000 copies in the first year. Nachtgang, written in prose, describes how a man and woman walk through the night and gently kiss; Bierbaum’s poem inspired Strauss to compose a dark melody that begins and ends in A flat major, with a wonderfully flattened pianissimo second on the word ‘milde’ and a thrilling key-shift to E minor, as the lovers kiss. Max Reger, who composed many of the same texts that Strauss set, made a solo piano arrangement of the song. Im Spätboot sets a poem by the Swiss writer Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, which describes the shadowy journey of a night boat that has Charonesque undertones (‘In the faint light of the ship’s lantern / A shadow disembarks and no one boards’). The eeriness of this neglected masterpiece for basso profundo is wonderfully captured in the final bars, when the voice descends to a low D, before the final ppp chords bring this sepulchral song to a close.
Hans Pfitzner was also inspired by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer in the four songs of his Opus 32, which opens with Hussens Kerker that is more dramatic monologue than lyrical song. Jan Hus, condemned to die at the stake, looks from the window of his prison onto the beautiful world outside. As the accompaniment plays its dense, organ-like chords, Hus, at one with his God-decreed fate, speaks with calm resignation of his readiness to die. His vision of the Saviour is accompanied by a flute-like melody. There is a precious recording of the song, dating from 1938, by Gerhard Hüsch with the composer himself at the piano.
The first movement of Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug, composed in 1727 for the festival of the Purification of Mary, is based on the celebrated words of Simeon from St Luke’s Gospel (2: 22-32). The mood is one of joyful and peaceful transfiguration, especially in the middle section where the word ‘Freuden’ (‘joy’) is set to a rising scale of demisemiquavers to express Simeon’s elation. It is presented here as the first of three new sets of orchestrations on this recording. (See Performance Note for information on the arrangement.)
Johann Mayrhofer, whom Schubert was to set 47 times, worked in Vienna as a book censor and shared lodgings with Schubert for a while in the Wipplingerstraße, from the autumn of 1818 until the winter of 1820. He committed suicide in 1836, after a failed attempt in 1831, by hurling himself from a third-floor window of the office where he worked. Of all Schubert’s friends, Mayrhofer, with his interest in philosophy, literature and the Classical world, was the most intellectual—nine years older than Schubert, he was the composer’s most important cultural mentor. Der Sieg makes veiled and prophetic reference to the poet’s suicide. The poem, written, as it were, from the other side of the divide, describes how the spirit, having broken free of existence, now lives ‘an unclouded life’. It has escaped life’s torment by committing suicide (‘The Muses themselves sang / The sphinx to the sleep of death, / And my hand—it struck the blow’). Mayrhofer’s idea that the artist holds the key to victory over death is expressed by Schubert through a magical hymn of praise.
Schubert set the poetry of Ludwig Hölty no fewer than 23 times and the earliest of these songs is Totengräberlied, composed in January 1813. There’s a bittersweet quality about much of Hölty’s poetry whose love of nature is often coloured by an awareness of death—he died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. But there’s nothing gloomy about this, the first of Schubert’s many ‘occupational’ songs. This gravedigger, whose occupation is mirrored in the ubiquitous two-bar ‘digging motif’ first heard in the prelude, is a light-hearted individual, unlike his fellow-gravediggers in ‘Totengräber-Weise’ (Schlechta) and ‘Totengräbers Heimwehe’ (Craigher de Jachelutta).
Between 1779 and 1783 Goethe wrote four great philosophic poems, ‘Gesang der Geister über den Wassern’, ‘Meine Göttin’, ‘Das Göttliche’ and ‘Grenzen der Menschheit’; and although all are written in free verse, a regular rhythm gradually becomes perceptible during the course of each poem. Schubert’s setting of Grenzen der Menschheit is perhaps the finest setting of a philosophical poem in the entire repertoire, although Wolf’s setting runs it close: Goethe’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ arrogance, so evident in ‘Prometheus’, has now been replaced by humility and a recognition of man’s insignificance. Schubert’s E major setting for bass, which resembles recitative more than song, expresses this awareness of mankind’s limitations through low-lying harmonies and, at „Uns hebt die Welle, / Verschlingt die Welle, / Und wir versinken“, an extraordinary passage in which the shifting harmonies—from F sharp minor to E flat minor to B—convey the sense of Goethe’s lines: that man, having been lifted up and tossed about by the waves, finally plummets into their depths and is drowned.
Schumann composed four collections of Romanzen und Balladen for solo voice: Opp 45, 49, 53 and 64, all comprising three songs and all written in 1840, except for the final set. Op 45 begins with Der Schatzgräber (Eichendorff). This neglected masterpiece describes a man delving for treasure, and Schumann, in an expressive opening scale passage, suggests the furious sound of the spade digging deep into the earth. The frenetic activity gives way at „Die Engel Gottes“ to arpeggiando quavers that depict the angels singing on high; but there is no mercy. The digging goes on, and, when the gold is glimpsed, G minor turns to gentler F sharp minor. Not for long: the digging continues and falling rocks crash down on the helpless treasure-seeker. Frühlingsfahrt (Eichendorff), which deals with the fate of two contrasting travellers (one settles down to a domestic life of bliss, the other pursues a life of adventure), must have appealed to Schumann, who consciously divided his own personality into the polarised characters of Florestan and Eusebius.
With the rise of the Nazis, Hanns Eisler fled Germany and began his life of exile, ending up in Los Angeles, like a great number of other German intellectuals, including Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Arnold Schoenberg, Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang, Alfred Döblin, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel and Bertolt Brecht. It was during the early thirties that he began to work with Brecht—a collaboration which yielded some 150 Lieder and cabaret songs. Their collaboration climaxed in the Hollywood Songbook, a collection of 46 songs (of which 28 were to poems by Brecht, 6 by Hölderlin, 5 by Mörike, 2 by Pascal, one from the Bible and one each by Goethe, Eichendorff, Eisler and Berthold Viertel). The presence of Goethe, Eichendorff, Hölderlin and Mörike relates to the conflict between the culture of Hollywood and that of the Lieder tradition which had developed in Germany—‘Über den Selbstmord’ quotes the opening bars of Winterreise, ‘Erinnerung an Eichendorff und Schumann’ sets the first verse of ‘In der Fremde’ („Aus der Heimat hinter den Blitzen rot“), and ‘An eine Stadt’ is dedicated to Franz Schubert. This multi-faceted collection contains poems that deal with such themes as exile, suffering, evil, hope, courage in adversity, poetry, suicide. Brecht was thrilled with his friend’s settings of his verse, and noted in his diary that Eisler read his poems „mit enormer Genauigkeit“—with enormous precision. In a sketch for a foreword to the Songbook, Eisler wrote: „In einer Gesellschaft, die ein solches Liederbuch versteht und liebt, wird es sich gut und gefahrlos leben lassen. Im Vertrauen auf eine solche sind diese Stücke geschrieben.“ (‘In a society that understands and loves such a songbook, life will be lived well and without danger. These pieces have been written with such a society in mind.’) We hear three songs from the Hollywood Songbook on this fascinating album. L'automne californien sets a poem by Berthold Viertel, in which the poet looks ahead to a future of peace in the world and a return from his American emigration, where the warm climate makes possible the cultivation of figs, to Germany, where the vine flourishes. An den kleinen Radioapparat (Brecht’s title was ‘Auf den kleinen Radioapparat’) is a poetic crystallisation of Brecht’s entry in his Arbeitsjournal on 11 June 1940:
Seit die Nachrichten so schlecht werden, erwäge ich sogar, ob ich das Frühradio abstellen soll. Der kleine Kasten steht neben dem Lager, meine letzte Handlung am Abend ist, ihn aus-, meine erste am Morgen, ihn anzudrehen.
Since the news is becoming so bad, I’m even considering whether I should not listen to the wireless in the early morning. The little box is positioned near my bed, and the last thing I do each evening is to turn it off, the first thing I do each morning is to switch it on.
An eine Stadt adapts a longer poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, called ‘Heidelberg’. The poem dates from 1800 but reflects the poet’s love for the town on the Neckar that he had described in 1788 as an eighteen-year-old in a travelogue written for his mother:
Die Stadt gefiel mir außerordentlich wohl. Die Lage ist so schön, als man sich je eine denken kann. Auf beiden Seiten am Rücken der Stadt steigen steile walddichte Berge empor, und auf diesen steht das alte, ehrwürdige Schloß […] Merkwürdig ist auch die neue Brücke daselbst.
I adored the town. You cannot imagine a more beautiful position. Steep wooded mountains soar up on either side and also behind the town, and on these is situated the ancient, noble castle […] The new bridge there is also remarkable.
Eisler’s music mirrors the poet’s nostalgia without ever spilling over into sentimentality.
Almost half of Mahler’s forty-or-so solo songs are settings of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a volume of folk verses collected by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, the first part of which was published in 1805. The title refers to the figure of a boy on horseback brandishing a horn, an illustration of ‘Das Wunderhorn’, the anthology’s opening poem. The source for many of the poems was oral, but the editors made frequent amendments in accordance with their own tastes. The poems have a childlike naivety but often enshrine profound wisdom in their unpolished, unpretentious verses. Many of Mahler’s settings deal with military life, and in the piano accompaniment we hear the beat of horses’ hooves, fanfares, drums and marches. He spent much of his childhood in the Moravian garrison town of Jihlava, and it is reliably reported that as a young boy he knew hundreds of military tunes by heart. Der Tamboursg’sell describes how a drummer boy is court-martialled and led to the gallows for desertion. The song is in Mahler’s saddest vein, with an opening reminiscent of the first movement of the fifth symphony. As the boy goes to his death, military drum-rolls ring out in the accompaniment.
Kurt Weill’s Das Berliner Requiem, composed in November and December 1928, was clearly influenced by the 1928 festivities that marked the tenth anniversary of the end of World War I and the murder of the Spartakist leader and militant pacifist, Rosa Luxemburg, by paramilitary right-wing members (the text of the third movement, ‘Grabschrift (1919)’ (‘Epitaph (1919)’) states: ‘And because she told the poor the truth, the rich exterminated her’). All the poems are by Brecht and all are aggressively anti-militaristic. Alles, was ich euch sagte is the penultimate movement of the piece that was originally scored for three solo voices—changed later to two solo voices and male chorus.
Richard Stokes © 2023
Bach’s Ich habe genug has its roots for me in my audition for the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, in 1978, which heralded the start of three revolutionary years as a choral scholar at the start of my career.
Years later, as contemporaries of mine from King’s were recording a collection of English song for the new King’s album Proud Songsters, I was in Los Angeles performing Weill’s Berliner Requiem with the McBurney brothers, Simon and Gerard. The final aria of the Requiem had fast become a love of mine, and the idea of a recording with my old College began to form.
I discussed with the brilliant composer Gerard McBurney the possibility of creating a new version of the Weill for smaller forces, to create a smaller, more intimate arrangement of that beautiful aria, and discussions quickly grew to involve another talented composer, Bertie Baigent, and the possibility of the Bach and three Hans Eisler songs that would suit the same orchestration.
Together we discussed the need to keep the sound worlds of the Weill and Eisler rooted in a sort of ‘pre-war Weimar’ but for the Bach to be a celebration of the flute and alto saxophone’s mellifluous timbre, interweaving the original obligato over the mystical quality of the piano, accordion, bass and guitar accompaniment, with echoes of the work’s contemporary bedfellows.
I have never been as moved as when I listened back to the first Bach recording: every element is so movingly portrayed by the players. While it was difficult to imagine what we were creating, it is without doubt everything I could have wished for and more. The Eisler arrangements add, I think, a context in sound to the reality of being a refugee in a strange land, and the Weill to the savagery and meaningless horror of war. Our last day of recording was 23 February 2022, and the following day came news that Russia had begun its invasion of Ukraine. There was an added poignancy to the words and music seared on our minds.
I am grateful to my friend and distinguished lieder expert Richard Stokes, who has helped me formulate this programme around the pillars of the Bach, Eisler and Weill, and in doing so has enabled me to curate not only my first recorded programme of lieder, but one that means so much to me.
Christopher Purves © 2023