Hans Sommer (1837-1922)
Mojca Erdmann (soprano); Anke Vondung (mezzo-soprano); Mauro Peter (tenor); Benjamin Appl (baritone)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester-Berlin (RSB)/Guillermo Garcia Calvo
rec. 2021, Saal 1, Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin, Germany
German texts & English translations included
Pentatone PTC5187023 
If, like me, you have not previously encountered the music of Hans Sommer, some biographical background may be helpful. For this I draw on the booklet essay by Hans-Christoph Mauruschat, who is the composer’s great-grandson.
Born in Braunschweig, Sommer initially trained as a mathematician and physicist, becoming a professor of maths by the age of 29. He pursued an academic career, teaching and also researching into lens systems (his stepfather was a leading pioneer in the field of photographic cameras). In his late thirties, Sommer became the director of the Braunschweig Polytechnikum, which under his leadership became one of the first technical universities in Germany. Sommer had a lifelong passion for music and took private composition lessons in parallel with his main career. It appears from the notes that when he spent some time in Weimar in 1884 Sommer received some encouragement from Liszt, though it’s not entirely clear (pace the comment on the back cover of the disc) whether he actually received any formal tuition from Liszt. He published works under a pseudonym, a number of which were performed locally. Eventually, in 1881 he relinquished his academic post, left Braunschweig for Berlin, and thereafter followed his vocation as a freelance composer.
Moving a few years later to Weimar, he “came onto [Richard] Strauss’s radar”; Strauss conducted Sommer’s opera Lorelei in 1892 and admired the score. Unfortunately, Sommer’s next opera, Saint Foix, was panned by the critics; according to the notes, Strauss, who had agreed to conduct the premiere but had to withdraw due to another commitment, was surprised by that critical reaction. Notwithstanding this setback, Sommer continued to compose operas; another was conducted by Strauss in 1905. Hans-Christoph Mauruschat makes a very interesting point in his essay: he suggests that a factor in the failure of Sommer to make operatic headway after Lorelei may have been that he insisted on self-publishing his music, thereby denying himself the advocacy of a publishing house. In the last phase of Sommer’s career, the decade from 1912 until his death, his main achievement was the composition of 21 orchestral songs, including a series of settings of Goethe.
With the exception of Wandrers Nachtlied II , al the items on this disc are world premiere recordings.
The first six songs, all of them setting words by Goethe, come from that group of late orchestral songs. Freisinn, sung by Benjamin Appl, is quite sprightly. Appl also gives us Der König von Thule. Both he and Sommer sustain our interest throughout the narrative; Sommer’s music has a melancholy dignity, which I find appropriate. The next two songs are entrusted to Anke Vondung. Mignons Heimath (‘Kennst du das Land’) may not be the equal of Wolf’s celebrated song, but Sommer’s is a good setting of Goethe’s words and the orchestration is very attractive. Rastlose Liebe, one of two Goethe songs allocated to Mojca Erdmann, is a big, dramatic setting which she does very well. I like the warm lyricism with which Sommer invests the last three lines of the poem.
Towards the end of the programme come three more late Goethe settings. Benjamin Appl sings both Wandrers Nachtlied I and Wandrers Nachtlied II. I like both of these. The orchestration in Wandrers Nachtlied I is impressively dark-hued, and one touch I love is the use of muted horns after the fifth line of the poem (‘Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!’). I also admired the warmth of the writing at the very end (‘Sußer Friede, /Komm, komm in meine Brust!) Wandrers Nachtlied II is also very rewarding: Sommer’s setting is atmospheric and the scoring is interesting. Appl sings both very well. It’s also relevant to mention Erinnerung, another Goethe song. This dates from 1922, the last year of Sommer’s life. Hans-Christoph Mauruschat tells us that the composer was only able to complete the song with piano accompaniment; he died before he could orchestrate it. Was it, therefore, his last composition, I wonder? The song was orchestrated in 2020 by Olga Kraupova and it seems to me that she has made an excellent, idiomatic job of the scoring.
The programme also includes a number of earlier compositions. Im Sturme is a turbulent setting of a poem by Julius Wolff (1834-1910); Anke Vondung sings it with great commitment. Nachts in der Kajüte is a jaunty offering, full of the confidence of youth as portrayed in the poem. Mauro Peter sings it with ringing assurance making me regret that this is the only song allocated to him on the programme.
We also get the chance to hear five short extracts from the opera Lorelei of which Richard Strauss had thought sufficiently highly that he conducted it. Sommer himself extracted from the opera a number of songs sung by the principal character, Lore, and published them both as individual songs and as a cycle, Here Mojca Erdmann sings them. ‘Röslein und Schmetterling’ is charming, both melodically and terms of the scoring, though the mood shifts to poignancy near the end. ‘Lore und der Junker’ is deliciously tongue in cheek, especially as delivered here. ‘Auf dem Felsen’ is, I think, the most memorable. It’s a song full of longing. There are four stanzas and, rather unusually, until the end of the third verse the singer is accompanied only by a harp; thereafter, the orchestra adds extra, discreet colourings.
At the end of the programme, we hear some pieces for which the accompaniment is furnished by a small ensemble consisting of clarinet and string quartet. Im Dorfe blüht die Linde, another setting of lines by Julius Wolff, is independent of the other pieces. Both the instrumentation and the melodic line are light and charming; I’ve written “sophisticated rusticity” in my notes. Wolff was also the poet for the song cycle Hunold Singuf which Sommer composed in 1883, adding the ensemble accompaniment, which is the same as for the preceding song, in 1897, presumably from a piano original. I infer from the opus numbers quoted in the booklet that the cycle is quite extensive: ‘Lockung’ appears to be number 21 in the set. Benjamin Appl sings the first three songs. In ‘Sommerspiel’ his singing is characterful but even this can’t quite stop the naïve rusticity of the song rather outsaying its welcome. ‘Lockung’ is rather better in terms of holding the listener’s attention. The music is essentially the same in all four verses but this time the delivery is sufficient to make you forget that and, in the accompaniment, the perky clarinet part is very pleasing. The final number ‘Istud Vinum’ is a drinking song, complete with Latin refrain after each verse. Here all four singers are involved: each has a solo verse and then they combine for the fifth verse. At the risk of a naughty pun, all of the singers enter into the spirit of the song, making their contributions characterfully.
On the evidence of the music on this disc I wouldn’t put Hans Sommer in the first rank of composers. That said, his music is worth hearing and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to do so. It’s also worth saying that, as Hans-Christoph Mauruschat points out, when Sommer first started composing orchestral songs he was something of a pioneer: there were few models in the German-speaking world, he says, apart from some unpublished orchestrations by Liszt of his own songs and Wagner’s orchestration of his Wesendonck song, ‘Träume’. The songs here receive excellent advocacy. All four singers offer accomplished and committed performances and the accompaniments, whether from the orchestra or the chamber ensemble, show Sommer’s scorings to excellent advantage.
The recorded sound is very good and Hans-Christoph Mauruschat’s notes give a valuable introduction to the composer and his music.
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Freisinn (c 1921)
Der König von Thule (c 1921)
Mignons Heimath (1920)
Beherzigung I (1920)
Beherzigung II (1920)
Rastlose Liebe (1920)
Im Sturme op. 4 Nr. 3 (1883, orch 1900)
Sir Aethelbert op. 11 Nr. 3 (1886, orch 1882
Lore im Nachen op. 13 Nr. 1 (Lieder aus der Oper Lorelei) (1889)
Röslein und Schmetterling op. 13 Nr. 2 (Lieder aus der Oper Lorelei) (1889)
Lore und der Junker op. 13 Nr. 3 (Lieder aus der Oper Lorelei) (1889)
Im Walde op. 13 Nr. 4 (Lieder aus der Oper Lorelei) (1889)
Auf dem Felsen op. 13 Nr. 5 (Lieder aus der Oper Lorelei) (1889)
Nachts in der Kajüte (c 1860)
Wandrers Nachtlied I (c 1919)
Wandrers Nachtlied II (1919)
Erinnerung (1922, orch Olga Kraupova, 2020)
Songs for voice and chamber ensemble
Im Dorfe blüht die Linde op. 2 Nr. 2 (1881, instrum. 1897)
Aus: Hunold Singuf , Rattenfängerlieder (1883, instrum. 1897): Zum Gruß Op. 4 Nr. 1;
Sommerspiel Op. 4 Nr. 6; Lockung Op. 4 Nr. 21; Istud Vinum Op. 4 Nr.
Christoph Korn (clarinet); Anne Feltz & Brigitte Dragonov (violins); Alejandro Regueira Caumel (viola); Peter Albrecht (cello)