Review CD Lou Koster Geiger von Echternach

Remy Franks’ from Pizzicato top rating of our CD:

Oehms Classics releases the original version of Lou Koster’s ‘Der Geiger von Echternach’, revised by Christian Meister, for voices, piano and violin solo. This composition by the Luxembourg composer is best known in the orchestral version by Pierre Cao.
Lou Koster (1889-1973) wrote more than 200 songs, but also cantatas and singspiels, the operetta ‘An der Schwemm’ (In the swimming pool) on a text by Batty Weber, and, as the crowning achievement of her life’s work, the setting of Nikolaus Welter’s ballad ‘Der Geiger von Echternach’.

From 1922 to 1954, Louise Koster – commonly called just Lou – taught piano at the Conservatory of the City of Luxembourg. In addition to her compositional activities, she performed as a pianist, violinist, singer, silent movie accompanist, and orchestra leader. By her own admission, she felt called to be a composer as a child. At a young age already she wrote music to poems by Musset, Verlaine, Lamartine, Goethe, Lenau, Storm, Keller, Mörike and others. She also was eager to use Luxembourg poetry in her music. She set poems in French by Marcel Noppeney, Marcel Gérard, Isabelle Oberweis, Henriette Theisen, Agathe Conrath, Felix Steinberg, and in German by Nikolaus Welter (about 30 songs), Gregor Stein (Pierre Grégoire), Paul Palgen, Hermann Berg (Wöllem Weis), Anise Koltz, and in Luxembourgish by Willi Goergen (about 40 poems), Lucien Koenig (Siggy), Michel Hever, Albert Eisen and others.
In 1939, her marches ‘Keep smiling’ and ‘La Joyeuse’ were very successful during Luxemburg’s independence celebration. Much later, in 1959, Lou Koster gave a first ‘Récital de mélodies et de poésies’ together with Beby Kohl, soprano, and Camille Felgen, baritone, at the Capuchin Theater in Luxembourg. The success of this matinee increased the composer’s optimism. Beby Kohl was joined by baritone Laurent Koster and tenor Venant Arend, who shortly thereafter formed the ‘Ensemble Onst Lidd’ (Our Song). But it was not until the ‘Geiger von Echternach’ (Violinist of Echternach), deliberately composed for a wider audience, that Lou Koster succeeded in being celebrated by the public as a national composer shortly before her death.

Her works were privately owned for a long time and only became accessible to the public in 2003 in the Lou Koster Archive at the Cid-femmes. Nevertheless, many of the composer’s works remain lost or are preserved only in fragments. Some two hundred and fifty works (songs, piano, chamber and choral music, orchestral works and songs, works for chorus and orchestra, an operetta, incidental music) have survived in complete versions.
Before composing the ‘Geiger von Echternach’, Lou Koster had allegedly been planning to write a large vocal work for some time. According to some sources, she intended to set to music the ‘Reenert’ by the Luxembourg poet Dicks. However, this has been disputed by some music researchers.
Koster composed the ‘Geiger’ in 1967 during her stay in the artist residence of the industrialist family Mayrisch in Cabris, southern France. Due to age and illness, she was unable to orchestrate the work herself, but commissioned the young musician Pierre Cao to do so. The conductor once told me that he was more than surprised by the commission and that it also caused him a lot of work, since the score that the composer gave him was not really developed. It contained only a vocal part and a piano accompaniment.

On July 9, 1972, the work was premiered with great success in the Basilica in Echternach by the soloists Venant Arend, Laurent Koster, Béby Kohl-Thommes, the RTL Orchestra and the Chorale Uelzecht, conducted by Pierre Cao. Further performances took place on June 27, 1974, again in Echternach, and on May 2, 1990, at the Luxembourg Conservatory of Music, this time with the orchestra of the house, but both times under the direction of Pierre Cao. Then the active Comité Lou Loster under the leadership of Venant Arend tried to get the work into the program of the City of Culture programs, first in 1995, then in 2007. In vain! But the tenor, who was one of the most ardent promoters of Lou Koster’s works, did not give up. The idea made its way, other partners were recruited, the Ministry of Culture centralized the efforts under the direction of Marco Battistella, and so it came to two more performances in September 2009, with the Luxembourg Philharmonic, the Chœur National du Luxembourg conducted by Pierre Cao and the soloists Anja Van Engeland, soprano, Jeff Martin, tenor, and Ekkehard Abele, baritone. Pierre Cao told Pizzicato at the time, « Lou Koster’s ‘Violinist of Echternach’ is a good work, but it is a work that must be defended. You have to believe in it! »
The ballad is based on a text by Nikolaus Welter (1871-1951), who in turn drew on a 19th century original. This was published first in the Netherlands and then in France by Jacques Albin Collin de Plancy. But actually the motif of Veit’s miraculous violin is part of a Middle High German legend from the beginning of the 11th century.

Welter’s book ‘Aus alten Tagen’ with ‘Balladen und Romanzen aus Luxemburgs Sage und Geschichte’ (Ballads and Romances from Luxembourg’s Saga and History) was published in 1900. The poet set his story in Echternach and brought plenty of local color into it: Next to his wife, the most precious thing in the world to Veit was his violin. The two had been converted to Christianity by St. Willibrord and soon went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Believing that they would not return, after a few years the relatives shared the orphaned possessions. But Veit reappeared a little later. His wife, he tells, had been killed by the Saracens. In order not to have to hand over the property again, the relatives accuse the dead man of murdering the wife. A divine verdict is to prove his guilt or innocence. Veit has to face the strongest man in the town in a duel. He loses and, as the presumed guilty party, is sent to the gallows. On the day of execution he asks as his last wish to be allowed to play his beloved violin once more. When he elicits the first notes from it, the onlookers fall silent and the executioner drops the rope. Veit continues to play and his melodies soon force everyone to dance. While the condemned man slowly walks away, everyone continues to dance. Willibrord releases them from the spell.

According to an article in the Luxemburger Wort of July 8, 1972, Welter « turned the motif reproach into a classical poetic work and Lou Koster into a musical work of art. It is not to de Plancy, but to these native artists that the legend owes its entrance into the genesis of Luxembourg’s national character. Welter, who was primarily concerned with the aesthetic value rather than the truth of the legend, also did a lasting service to the sense of independence of the Luxembourg people with his work. This was probably due to the poetic value of his work, which found a natural complement in Lou Koster’s tone poetry. But it was also due to the time. In 1935, when the piece was performed by Jewish refugee artists during the Echternach Festival, the first serious threat to Luxembourg’s sovereignty since the country’s departure from the German Confederation had just occurred seventeen years earlier, and the second and much more serious threat was already looming. Tomorrow’s performance of the ‘Violinist of Echternach’ at the as it were ‘historical place’ is more than a somewhat belated reverence before an important neo-romantic work of art. It is not only to prove the vitality of the Welter-Koster ballad. It is also something of a national deed, for it wants to seem as if the melody of the Wundergeiger is also somewhat the timeless melody of Luxembourg. »

On the occasion of the premiere and also later performances, critics have pointed out how much the musical work shows « the composer’s intimate, genuinely feminine empathy, » how much her music is one with the unjustly condemned Veit.
Musicologist Danielle Roster, who has written a biography of Koster and also the booklet text for the CD, writes: « Like Werner Egk in his opera ‘Die Zaubergeige’ (1935), which revolves around a similar theme, Lou Koster also wanted to compose a piece with her violinist ‘for those who love the simple’ ‘in which they should rejoice’ (Lou Koster: ‘Ech hunn dach fir d’Leit komponéiert!’). Like Egk, she incorporated folk tunes and folk dances (most notably the melody of the Echternach Hopping Procession) into her ballad. The work is very expressive and lets soloists and choir perform the dramatic events with the emotionally charged simplicity of a medieval bard. In the Geiger, the theme is ’emotion and music’. Poet and composer alike are concerned with a detailed portrayal of the various emotional states of the music-making Veits, which modulate and alter his violin playing. In this way, his music triggers very different effects in the listener. Veit’s playing is a long lament that takes him from quiet sorrow to tormented suffering to angry vengefulness and finally to humility. The tonal palette ranges from tender dolcissimo passages to savage war music. »

Many articles about the ‘Violinist of Echternach’ speak of a ‘composition’, a ‘work’ or a ‘piece of music’. In an announcement of the premiere, the Luxemburger Wort spoke of a ‘tone poem’, also of a ‘Welter-Koster ballad’. In 1972, already before the premiere, Evy Friedrich used the term ‘oratorio’ in an article in the magazine Revue. In circles of the association ‘Onst Lidd’ the term ‘Secular Oratorio’ is said to have gained acceptance thereafter, although it was never used by the composer. According to Danielle Roster, this term does not do justice to the work. And so now it is rather spoken of as a ‘ballad’.
I was privileged to attend several recitals with Lou Koster at the piano in the Museum at the Luxembourg Fish Market in the sixties, I got to know the music of the Ballade at the premiere in Echternach in 1972 and afterwards better through the live recording published by CLT. Kloster’s composition, although written in a tonal language no longer common at the time, is thoroughly artful and ultimately very impressive music whose strengths undoubtedly lie in its gripping blend of emotionality and drama.

Intuitively, Lou Kloster found the right way here to fully exploit Welter’s ballad with the means of music. With folk tunes and folk dances (first and foremost the melody of the Echternach Hopping Procession) in an artful treatment, there is an interpenetration of poetry and music. Koster uses music to create moods, to stimulate the imagination, and thus achieves the best possible fusion of word and sound in a soulful form, whereby in her romantic tonal language even the finest nuances of moods and feelings can be musically expressed. The accompanying folksiness is not a disadvantage, thanks to the composer’s sincerity as well as her sure taste and craft. And it is expressed much more strongly in this version for small vocal ensemble and soloists than in the choral version. The very intimism of the Singer Pur version underscores the composer’s compassion. Even more, the reduced music takes on a new urgency, to which the rhetoric of the piano, played expressively by Claude Weber, adds a lot. Sandrine Cantoreggi’s brilliant violin also combines ideally with the piano to create a sustainably effective chamber music act.
No doubt, Singer Pur and the instrumentalists realize what Cao demanded: they defend a good musical work because they believe in it! 

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