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 Recording of the Week  Music to commemorate the First World War

100 years ago today, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, beginning the First World War – as the booklet-note for my disc of the week points out, it was only one of nearly 15,000 recorded conflicts, yet led to a loss of life on an unprecedented scale. Like many others, I’m sure, I’ve been reading and reflecting on the terrible consequences as the anniversary approached, and an imaginatively-programmed new recital-disc from the Austrian soprano Anna Prohaska has proved an insightful aid to rumination.

Anna Prohaska
Anna Prohaska

Ranging over four centuries and as many languages, the disc juxtaposes the familiar and the unfamiliar, so that some of the greatest military songs from the German Lied tradition (Schumann, Schubert, Wolf and Mahler all appear) sit cheek-by-jowl with rarities such as a beautiful sixteenth-century dirge by Michael Cavendish and songs by Charles Ives and Wolfgang Rihm. Of Anglo-German origin herself, Prohaska has selected songs which emphasise the communality of experience ‘behind the lines’, and the wide chronological span of the programme also draws attention to the transhistorical qualities of war. That said, the generous proportion of early twentieth-century songs (including several bitter cabaret-influenced numbers which suit Prohaska especially well) reminds us that the ‘Great War’ remains the central focus.

Currently based in Germany, Prohaska is one of the brightest and most distinctive young sopranos around at the moment, packing an astringent light lyric instrument that’s immaculately schooled but also full of quirks and character and which she uses with unmannered intelligence and imagination. She started young, singing soubrette roles at prestigious houses in her early twenties, and has since made considerable impact in demanding contemporary repertoire (particularly the title-role in Berg’s Lulu Suite) as well as making a mark in the studio with two equally eclectic themed recitals for Deutsche Grammophon. I was only intermittently gripped by these earlier recordings, but with Behind the Lines it’s instantly apparent that you’re in the presence of a singer of blazing commitment and authority. Prohaska may not have a ‘dramatic’ voice in the technical sense of the word, but she asserts herself completely even in those big set-pieces which are usually the province of heavier-voiced male singers.

Her versatility, too, is quite staggering as she takes on not only four different languages and a myriad of styles but also a whole gallery of characters including weary soldiers, grieving wives, abandoned children and consoling angels. Perhaps not everyone will take to the shrill whining she employs as the eponymous child in Hanns Eisler’s Kriegslied eines Kindes, but throughout the recital her characterisation across and within the songs is pin-sharp at every turn.

A wide-ranging programme like this could run the risk of seeming disjointed or jolting, especially as it plays fast and loose with chronology, but it really does feel like a seamless meditation: in fact there were one or two occasions where I had to check the booklet to confirm that we’d changed track, so convincing were the transitions (the haunting German folksong which opens the disc segues headlong into Beethoven’s ebullient Die Trommel gerühret, and Kurt Weill’s savagely ironic Beat, beat, drums emerges organically from the eerie coda of Mahler’s Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen). Certainly Wolfgang Rihm’s Untergang stands out as the most ‘difficult’ work on the disc, but Prohaska tears into it with such searing conviction that it becomes one of the highlights.

In short, this is a mesmerising, powerful and frequently very moving disc, full of terrible beauty and of course especially pertinent this summer. I can see myself returning to it again and again for many years to come.

Anna Prohaska: Behind the Lines

Anna Prohaska (soprano), Eric Schneider (piano)

Available Format: CD