Entartete Musik, or degenerate music, has played something of an important part in this year’s Oslo Chamber Music Festival. Friday afternoon saw the second in a series of four concerts showcasing music that was declared unlawful by the Third Reich. The concerts were all held at Villa Grande, a large mansion which served as the home of Vidkun Quisling, the Minister-President of Norway during the Second World War, and is now a part of the Norwegian Centre for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities.

Erwin Schulhoff’s music is not often performed. His music is essentially tonal, or at least the relationship to late 19th century tonality is stronger than that to the serialism of Schönberg and the Second Viennese School. There is also a distinct influence of jazz and of dance rhythms. Indeed, in his Five Pieces for String Quartet, four out of the five movements are outright dances. The first movement was a Viennese Waltz, albeit sounding more like Hindemith than Strauss. A delightfully sardonic little piece, it featured some very good viola playing from Eri Sugita of the Quartet Berlin-Tokyo. Next followed a menacingly lyrical Serenade and a movement based on Czech folk music. In the latter, it seemed like the quartet dared to let themselves loose and the playing was, for lack of a better word, ugly, the bows digging into the string, creating a rather folk music-like atmosphere. After a sombre Tango, there followed a lively Tarantella taken at breakneck speed that showed off some very impressive ensemble playing.

Alma Mahler never understood why Gustav had to write the Kindertotenlieder. These songs, with texts by Friedrich Rückert, detail a father’s grief after the death of his children, and they were written as Mahler became a father. Baritone Johannes Weisser and pianist Håvard Gimse’s performance was coloured by an overall sense of grief with occasional glimmers of hope, but I would maybe have preferred something rather more nuanced, especially from Weisser. Still, there was plenty to commend the performance. Gimse’s crystalline playing in Nun Will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n perfectly complemented Weisser in this perhaps most resigned song of the cycle. The fact that the piano version was used allowed Gimse to highlight the music box-like quality of the third movement, Wenn dein Mütterlein, an almost macabre touch that made the text feel even more uncomfortable than it usually does. As the piano played up a storm in the fifth song, In diesem Wetter, Weisser seemed curiously unaffected, singing with a surprising lack of anger, making the contrast with the serene last section of the song all the less transcendent.

In the three Weill songs that followed, bass-baritone Njål Sparbo failed to make much of an impression. The songs were written during and immediately after the Second World War, and the texts, by Walt Whitman, were written during the American Civil War. War is indeed the overarching subject of these songs, ranging from a call to arms in Beat! Beat! Drums! to a lament for two dead soldiers in Dirge for Two Veterans. These songs were clearly influenced by popular music of the time, with blues and jazz permeating the score. Generally, the performance was very loud, from both Gimse and Sparbo, and the songs suffered both from a general lack of nuance and from a heaviness unbefitting to Weill’s more popular idiom.

The final piece of the concert was Arnold Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte for string quartet, piano and reciter, a piece written in support of the allied forces’ fight against Hitler. The instrumentalists, the Quartet Berlin-Tokyo and pianist Ole Christian Haagenrud played admirably, capturing the frantic nature of the opening especially well, although they were perhaps a touch too loud at times. I was decidedly less impressed by Njål Sparbo as the reciter, who seemed to be more interested in the theatricality of the reciting part instead of actually reciting the text. That he was often difficult to hear over the ensemble did not help.

Friday’s concert served as an interesting showcase of music that, undeservedly, isn’t performed too often. Even though the performances were somewhat lacking, the quality of the music shone through.

***11