Concerto for Harpsichord & Strings Op. 14
Distler's fascinating Chamber Concerto for Harpsichord & 11 Instruments (1930-'32) suggests the influence of Hindemith's Kammermusiken both in scale and style, though the piece had to wait until 1998 for its premiere-- this superb recording from Thorofon made within days of that initial performance. Employing an authentic 1930s-era Neuport instrument similar to the one Distler owned, this reading is refreshingly free of the balance issues that vex so many other recordings of the modern harpsichord repertory, in which, all too often, the anachronistically "Baroque-authentic" keyboard is overpowered by the ensemble. The music displays great affective depth and emotional complexity, a searing, searching quality in its uncharacteristically acerbic dissonances. This is music of a deeply personal nature, movingly original notwithstanding its obvious influences.
Hugo Distler (1908-1942) is probably best known for his sacred choral and organ music, most of it based on old Reformation-era chorales and texts. Many of these works are undoubted masterpieces, and the Choral Passion Op. 7, Weinachtsgeschicte (Christmas Story) Op. 8, and Totentanz (Dance of Death) from Op. 12, along with the lovely, often strikingly intense settings of Möricke poems have justifiably gained a foothold in the modern choral repertory. His organ works are often featured in recitals, though perhaps not with as much frequency as their quality would suggest they deserve.
The Concerto for Harpsichord & Strings Op. 14 was written between 1935 and '36, when the composer was in his late 20s. Originally in four movements, the work is most often heard today in a rather thoughtlessly redacted three-movement version (the composer's peevish response to initial criticism of the work's length). The Haselböck reading on Thorofon has restored the original third Allegro spirituoso e scherzando movement with illuminating results, revealing for the first time a work of extraordinary maturity and expressive power, so far removed from the vaguely bijou impression left by so many previous "incomplete" performances. (Distler himself described the music as "angry".) Thorofon's recording venue is sufficiently natural, with an almost perfectly balanced ensemble, affording the work what is probably the most convincing, powerfully moving reading it has ever received.
By contrast, Huguette Dreyfus' muddled, cursory rendition for the Musicaphon label gives the impression of music that doesn't seem to go anywhere. Hearing this, one might imagine a composer struggling with an unfamiliar form, guilty of mindless "note-spinning", endeavoring to eke out some type of structure from woefully inadequate thematic materials. The slow Hindemithian second movement seems dismally ponderous and uninspired here. Without the original third movement, the theme-and-variations finale makes for a jarring contrast, and little sense, seeming hardly more than a quaint addendum, or, worse, an eclectic aftethought. While the Berlin Bach Soloists' playing is sufficiently energetic, the recording might well have benefitted from a drier, less resonant acoustic, as the strings constantly seem to be getting lost in a deep echo chamber, rendering moments of the piece virtually incoherent. I was reminded of those early mono LPs that were incompetently "electronically rechanneled to simulate stereo". Overall, quite a disappointment, especially as Musicaphon advertises the recording as a super-audo production. The live performance of Distler's incidental music for Der Ritter Blaubart (The Knight Bluebeard), a play by Ludwig Tiek, is interesting for sharing some of the thematic material from the the harpsichord concerto, and may well be the best reason to get the Musicaphon disc. Performances are quite good, with a better acoustic ambiance than the concerto, and the recorded sound is excellent.
The Thorofon CD is recommended without reservation, equally to those would-be Distler complete-ists, as well as those curious about these two works' place in the neo-Baroque revival of the early 20th century. The Musicaphon disc is desirable only for the Ritter Blaubart score.
Hugo Distler (1908-1942): A Basic Discography
(*) indicates recommended recording
Cantate C 57620 (2001 re-issue)
(original recording, 1968)
Distler: Der Jahrkreis Op. 5
Wilhelm Ehmann/Westphalian Ensemble
(selections from Op. 5, 6, 11, and 13)
Thorofon CTH 2551 (2007)
Distler: Eine Deutesche Choralmesse Op. 3
Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr Op. 2
selections from Kleine Choralmotetten und Liedsätz
selections from Der Jahrkreis Op. 5
Erik Matz/Hugo Distler Ensemble