„Strong, Focused Hartmann from the Airis Quartet!”
Jed Distler, Classics Today
„(…) dominant feature is the maximum unity of technical elements, thanks to which the quartet has achieved a unique balance, perfection of expression.”
„The reason for joy (…) is the focus of the ensemble on the actual content of the reproduced works and the way they are best presented.”
Milan Bátor, Český rozhlas Vltava
“For their first recording the Airis sound remarkably poised and confident, and project the tensile drama of this quartet with fire and precision. (…)The Hartmann quartets are hardly newcomers to the discography, but the Airis Quartet prove persuasive exponents, more extrovert than the Zehetmair Quartet (ECM) and tonally rather richer than the Pellegrini (Quartet) (…) the Airis have contributed strongly to Hartmann’s important legacy of chamber music on disc.”
Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
Karl Amadeus Hartmann is certainly one of the most interesting and at the same time the least recognisable figures in the constellation of 20th-century composers. World War II forced the young, then 28-year-old Hartmann to take a difficult life decision – standing at the threshold of a promising artistic career, he refused all cooperation with the Nazis, thus accepting his disappearance from the official musical life of the Third Reich. However, he remained in the country, consciously choosing the way of ‘inner emigration’. This attitude was a very rare phenomenon among artists. Those who ob- jected to the cruel policy of Nazism usually decided to leave the country to create freely. Remaining in the very centre of raging Hitlerism with the looming spook of artistic death sentence must have been testimony to his extraordinary power of character and integrity of conscience. However, it was not a passive act of resignation. In the quiet of the home owned by his parents-in-law in Kempfenhausen near Munich, surrounded by the Nazis’ estates, unbeknownst to his neighbours, Hartmann composed music surging with emotion, being a reflection of his soul and a testimony to his humanity.
Born on 2 August 1905 in Munich, he grew up in a family with painting, pedagogical and craft traditions cultivated by his grandfather, father and three elder brothers. Their mother Gertrude, in love with literature, theatre and opera, organised amateur performances with her friends at home. A childhood lived in a family with a broad spectrum of artistic interests stimulated Hartmann’s sensitivity, imagination and inter- disciplinary approach to arts and life. Since the early years, he also showed great musical talent. He studied trombone at the Staatliche Akademie der Tonkunst in Munich, then composition in the class of Joseph Haas (student of Max Reger).
A significant role in Hartmann’s creative evolution was played by the German conductor Hermann Scherchen, an honorary member of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), founder of the music journal Melos and tireless promoter of contemporary music. He soon became a mentor and friend of the young composer, inspired and sup- ported him in artistic endeavours and promoted his works at various festivals, including in Strasbourg, Prague and Winterthur. In the years 1942–43, Hartmann also studied under the supervision of one of the Viennese dodecaphonists, Anton Webern.
With the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933, it became clear that the time of artistic freedom was definitely over. From then on, every artistic activity was subjected to control and invigilation of power by the Reichsmusikkammer, an institution established specially for this purpose, headed by Richard Strauss. In the first years of Hitler’s rule, Hartmann almost completely ceased to compose. For many family, private and economic reasons, he neither could nor wanted to leave the country. Later, he focused all his efforts on composing music that advocated the ideas of humanism, expressing opposition to discrimination and enslavement. As he wrote: ‘Then I understood that it was necessary to take a stance (…), an act of counteraction demonstrating that freedom prevails even during the time of oppression.’ Unable to publish in the Reich, he sent his compositions abroad, looking for a possibility of their performance. When his works achieved the first significant successes outside Germany the acclaim of the Western press echoed widely in the Third Reich, which immediately caused Hartmann problems and resulted in controls by the Reichsmusikkammer. He was ordered to report before each trip and give an account of its details. He was repeatedly urged to submit relevant supporting documents confirming his and his wife Elisabeth’s Aryan origin (married in 1934), which he persistently declined for moral and ideological reasons. Moreover, he actively worked to help the Jews and different resistance groups. He also morally and financially supported his brother Richard, a politically committed socialist who, escaping the Gestapo, found refuge in a labour camp in Switzerland. At the time of growing fear of bombardments, Hartmann decided to hide the manuscripts in the mountains – he buried them in a zinc box several metres underground, thanks to which they were saved from destruction.
After the war, Hartmann was one of very few people in Germany with an impeccable biography. His anti-fascist activities during the war as well as artistic and organisational competences led to his appointment as dramaturg of the Bavarian Opera. He immediately took active steps to rebuild the cultural life of post-war Germany. In 1945, he founded the institution Musica Viva (which operates to this day), where he remained until his death in 1963. The main purpose of the series of Musica Viva concerts was to familiarise the audience with contemporary music, forbidden by the Nazi authorities and considered ‘degenerated’, and to provide a chance for young composers to emerge. Thanks to Musica Viva concerts, Hartmann became a mentor for many politically involved and repressed young artists, such as Luigi Dallapiccola, Luigi Nono and Hans Werner Henze. Musica Viva concerts were accompanied by art exhibitions involving, among others, Jean Cocteau, Le Corbusier or Joan Miró. In the programmes of Musica Viva concerts, Hartmann’s works appeared sporadically. The composer was very critical of his work and had a lot of humbleness. The driving force behind his actions was never the need for self-promotion, which is why he did not use the position of director of the concert institution to satisfy his own ambitions.
Throughout his life, Hartmann never let himself be restricted and entangled in any ideology or political system. He consistently followed his own creative needs, unaffected by practical aspects, success or career. His views always focused on humanism, freedom, love of art and human rights. He was so consistent in these beliefs that when, after the war, socialist circles interested in his anti-Nazi activity suggested joining the party and an artistic career in East Berlin, Hartmann again refused firmly. Despite his leftist views, he remained independent, seeing in the extreme socialism another face of enslavement.
Hartmann’s work is very difficult to attribute to any particular compositional school. Although he was not a revolutionist in terms of notation or performance forces, he was able to creatively subordinate all the achievements of modern musical language to innovative formal approaches. His music fascinates with the scale of expression, the intensity of dramatic appeal and attention-grabbing musical narrative. Hartmann wrote with extraordinary verve, creating artistic phrases with a broad ambitus, at the same time he could masterfully juggle short motifs, subjecting them to elaborate variational and contrapuntal transformations. In terms of harmonics, Hartmann’s music is tonal, though strongly chromatic, which deprives the listener of a secure sense of anchoring in a specific key. The composer did not shy away from strongly dissonant sounds, sometimes close to clusters. Sound beauty in purely aesthetic terms was not his priority. He created music in the service of truth, uncompromising and authentic.
The framework of Hartmann’s ‘inner emigration’ is symbolically marked by two string quartets. String Quartet No. 1was created in 1933 just after Hitler was appointed Chancellor of the Third Reich, whereas String Quartet No. 2was composed a moment after the end of World War II, in 1945. Other important works written during this time include the tone poem Miserae, the opera Simplicius Simplicissimus, Concerto funèbrefor violin and chamber orchestra and Sinfonia tragica. The work of this period is extremely allusive and full of content hidden, as it were, between the verses. The composer’s musical language, like an enigmatic message, requires deciphering to understand the hidden meaning. Hartmann weaves in quotes from Jewish melodies, a Hussite hymn, a Russian revolutionary song or from Chinese liberation songs, but these are never literal quotes, but melodies passed through the filtre of an individual musical concept. Jazz elements in the rhythmic layer, metric irregularities or percussive treatment of instruments are an allusion to all manifestations of ‘degeneration’ in music banned by the Nazi regime.
Looking at Hartmann’s compositional work, it is impossible not to notice that he eagerl experimented with an unusual line-up of instruments in his works, seeking a variety of colour and expression or appropriate intensity of sound (e.g. Kleines Konzert for string quartet and percussion, Toccata variata for piano, wind instruments and percussion, Symphonie-Divertissement for bassoon, tenor trombone, double bass and string orchestra, Kammerkonzert for clarinet, string quartet and chamber orchestra, Concerto for Viola and Piano accompanied by wind instruments and percussion). In this context, choosing at key moments of life the form of classical quartet – a composition with a homogeneous, melting sound, intimate in its appeal and associated with the international music canon for centuries – does not seem to be accidental.
String Quartet No. 1 ‘Carillon’
String Quartet No. 1 ‘Carillon’, dedicated to Hermann Scherchen, was awarded the first prize in the composition competition in Geneva in 1935. After a presentation in London at the ISCM Festival in 1938, an anonymous reviewer in The Times compared the work to Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets, including in terms of how to treat the instruments as four equal parts. Indeed, the autonomous treatment of parts is a dominant feature in both Hartmann’s quartets. The first movement of String Quartet No. 1 opens with the famous Jewish melody Eliyahu Hanavi, which became a kind of motif that united the entire work of the composer, because it was present in many of his later works in a different (often modified) form. The quartet contains numerous elements inspired by folk music, such as spontaneity and primordial energy, simplicity and condensation of motifs repeated in a motoric way, characteristic themes that are easy to imitate, ostinato accompaniments in fourth and fifth double-stops, bourdon notes on an empty string accompanied by melodies, dancing shifts of stresses and at times percussive treatment of instruments. The contrasting second movement has a quasi religioso character. The composer introduces in it chilly harmonic sounds, chord planes evoking the impression of ‘timelessness’. A cello recitative follows, clearly inspired by Bartók’s music − written in an extremely high register, imitating singing with a lump in one’s throat (it sounds like the voice of a nation brought to extremes in oppression…). The third movement is very lively and energetic, and the glissando dialogue between the viola and cello against the background of semiquaver tremolo in the violin brings to mind the sounds of sirens alarming about the upcoming bombardment. The dense texture and dynamics of rhythmic patterns imitated in the canon by all the parts magnify the impression of confusion, evoking associations with the chaos and panic present on the streets of cities during the war.
String Quartet No. 2
String Quartet No. 2 was dedicated to Hartmann’s wife Elisabeth. The work written just after the end of the war is full of images and memories from the time of terror. In terms of technique and expression, it is definitely a more mature composition. The quartet opens with a cello solo playing a melody of a very vocal, lamenting character, rising in second and tritone steps up to the soprano register. It echoes the melody of Eliyahu Hanavi, but the expression of this fragment is much more dramatised – in it you can see the painful experiences of wartime. The introduction is crowned with the motif of four chords, repeated twice, evoking associations with the four-note motif of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto or with the essence of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Es ist genug, referring to the end of life, the end of suffering and the promise of salvation. The dramaturgy of the fast section is quite different, we have here semiquaver runs in the canon, the irregularity of metric divisions evoking an impression of instability, the dense texture of the four equally important parts. Strongly chromatic melodies of the themes evoke a sense of ‘tonal’ insecurity and lead the listener through the meanders of unpredictable narrative. The composer often uses the so-called anti-climax, that is increasing the expressive tension and running the phrase towards a culmination that does not come to pass. Instead, there is an extremely contrasting fragment maintained in piano dynamics, often conducted by two parts in unison, while the other two provide a coloured background. This diversity, unpredictability and accumulation of various elements in a very eloquent way reflect the post-war world seen through the eyes of the composer – full of uncertainty, chaos, hope tarnished by painful experiences and smouldering with a faint flame. The theme opening the finale, based on FEGB sounds, comes from the name of the Hungarian Végh string quartet. For the first time, this ensemble performed String Quartet No. 2 in Milan in 1949 and enjoyed a long-standing collaboration with Hartmann. The four-note motif has one more hidden meaning – it syllabically refers to the name of the quartet’s dedicatee: Hartmann’s wife Elisabeth (each note is the equivalent of one syllable: E-li-sa-beth!). In the final movement, energetic, fast-paced fragments give way to passages full of longing, loneliness and emptiness or specific ‘sound spaces’ with appassionato chords where you can hear the echoes of music by Gustav Mahler or Richard Strauss.
Langsamer Satz by Anton Webern
Alongside from Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s string quartets, the album features a small piece Langsamer Satz by Anton Webern. In 1942, Hartmann went to study with Webern in his village home, where Webern was staying then. Hartmann showed extraordinary reverence to Webern, he admired his genius in building the structure of works and the ability to condense musical thought. Webern, undervalued during his lifetime, after the annexation of Austria by Germany was repressed and banned from any public activity on charges of ‘cultural barbarism’, and when in 1945 he escaped from warfare to Mittersill, he died on the veranda of his home, mistakenly shot by an American soldier. In the post-war years, Hartmann included Webern’s works in Musica Viva concert programmes.
The Langsamer Satz for string quartet was created in 1905, but its premiere did not happen until 1962 in Seattle. Webern composed it during a mountain trip in Austria for which he went with the love of his life, Wilhelmine Mortl, his cousin and future wife. This unusually beautiful work full of sophisticated sounds comes from the period when Webern still wrote tonal music, before becoming one of the fathers of dodecaphony. It reflects the soul of a 21-year-old man in love, his gusts of heart, euphoria and melancholy.
The Langsamer Satz in its subtle expression and delicacy is a counterbalance to Hartmann’s string quartets filled with the fear of wartime, suffering and anxiety. However, the hope for being salvaged, longing for the carelessness of early youth and the desire for a happy life resounding in Hartmann’s music find their fullness in the Webernesque miniature.
written by Aleksandra Czajor