Classical: Proms: Deutsche girl

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IT'S EASY to deride classical music's obsession with anniversaries: "Who died 100 years ago? OK, let's play their music." Yet anniversaries can also cast new light on music we think we know, and illuminate music we don't know at all. Hanns Eisler was born in 1898, and his life embraced many of the contradictory possibilities facing the 20th-century composer: serialism, populism and communism; Weimar Germany, Hollywood and East Germany.

He studied with Schoenberg, collaborated with Brecht, got kicked out of the United States for "un-American activities": if not hidden from history, still a perfect candidate for a "centenary celebration".

Last Wednesday the Proms devoted most of a programme to his music, albeit in the late-night slot that almost confesses, "Sorry, this is a bit marginal." Nevertheless the turnout was good, perhaps because the singer originally advertised was Ute Lemper. In the event, Lemper's substitute was Maria Friedman, a different but no less forceful personality.

Conductor Robert Ziegler provided the Matrix Ensemble with arrangements of some of Eisler's Brecht settings, as well as of four Weill songs, his instrumentation spicy with accordions and banjo, but tending to make Eisler sound like Weill, and vice-versa. Or perhaps that was Friedman's delivery (miked for clarity). All texts were sung in English, a wise decision when first-rate translations, mostly by John Willett, are readily available. Friedman gave them her all. Not for her the ironic distancing that Brecht invites. Instead, she emoted, the voice gravid with vibrato, arms spread to embrace the whole Albert Hall. In a word, she Sondheim'd.

Authenticity may be chimerical when it comes to singing Weill and Eisler, but Friedman sacrificed pungent tunefulness for the swallowed sob, the bellowed howl that are West End style. Still, she sang 'em like she meant 'em, and that counts for a lot. The evening's highlights, though, were elsewhere: Ziegler opened with Eisler's Kleine Sinfonie (1932), full of ideas, from the elemental string figures that provided the work's foundation, to the eerily vocal wa-wa trumpet and trombone of the third movement. Hardly less impressive was the suite Eisler made from his score for Viktor Trivas' 1931 film Niemandsland (No Man's Land), with saxes, tuba and banjo bouncing tunes around with merry abandon.

If that had been all, it would have convinced us that we should hear more Eisler, but the performance of Bilder aus der "Kriegsfibel" ("Pictures from the War Primer") was truly special. The texts (sung by the BBC Singers, Andrew Murgatroyd, Stuart MacIntyre and Carolyn Foulkes) were four-line epigrams which Brecht wrote to accompany war photos clipped from picture- magazines, their bitterness all the more emphatic for being understated: "Those murky forces, woman, that torment you/ All have a face, an address and a name."

Eisler's music matched them with a sparseness that was quite stunning: no excessive gestures, no decoration, absolute clarity of colour and line, an angry masterpiece superbly performed. Eisler's time may have come at last.

Nick Kimberley