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Rudi Stephan – Complete Songs

Mitternacht for bass and reed organ; Waldnachmittag, Weihnachtsgefuehl; Auf den Tod einer jungen Frau; Sieben Lieder nach verschiedenen Dichtern; Ich will dir singe nein Hohelied – 6 Lieder auf Texte von Gerda von Robertus; Zwei ernste Gesaenge

Sophie Harmsen – mezzo soprano
Alexander Vassiliev – bass
Miri Yampolsky – piano
Ryoko Morooka - harmonium

MDG Scene MDG 603 1748-2
, Recorded September 2011, 57 minutes

Rudi Stephan must surely be one of the unluckiest of composers; not only was he tragically killed in the World War I trenches but his entire personal musical archive was accidentally destroyed in a fire in World War II, depriving posterity of much unpublished material.

After the steady grounding of a formal musical education in Frankfurt and Munich, Stephan struck out in an original direction.  He was considered one of the brightest of the up and coming generation of composers with his name being mentioned alongside those of Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner.

Early works that won critical acclaim include his magnificent Music for Orchestra in one movement and the Liebeszauber scored for baritone and orchestra.  Recordings of both these works (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau being the baritone) together with Music for Violin and Orchestra and Music for Seven Stringed Instruments were re-issued by KOCH Schwann (3-6709-2) in 1998 and whilst no longer in the current catalogue, copies of the CD can readily be found – highly recommended – get a copy whilst you can!

Stephan’s last completed work was the opera Die ersten Menschen which is both original and tuneful.  On first hearing I was strongly reminded of Hindemith’s Cardillac, which of course Stephan pre-dates by some 12 years, and only later learned that Paul Hindemith conducted the first, posthumous performance of Die ersten Menschen. Performances are now rare, but it is well served in recording with two versions available: with the Berlin Radio Orchestra conducted by Rickenbacher on CPO (999 980-2) and the Orchestra National de France conducted by Mikko Franck for Naïve (V 5028).  Despite Kurt Masur’s connection with the latter, I believe the Berlin recording is superior in all respects and gives a most persuasive account of a near-forgotten masterpiece.

Between these orchestral scale works there remain a only a handful songs, now happily recorded in their entirety to exactly fill the current premiere CD.

For the most part Stephan chose to set poems by his contemporaries, and now relatively obscure, so there are no familiar texts here (and no translations are included).  His musical idiom is always inventive, responding sensitively to the words and his evocations of night time are particularly successful.  The performances are deeply committed and the songs fit well together to make an agreeable concert.   The accompanying leaflet is illustrated with paintings of the period and the “Memento Vivere”,  coined for the collection from the words of Friedrich Hebbel, the poet of Liebeszauber and, incidentally, the librettist of Schumann’s single venture into opera, Genoveva

A thoroughly commendable CD and one of historic significance – may it lead to wider performance of these well crafted and highly enjoyable songs.

Serena Fenwick