A review by Jonathan Woolf

Paul HERMANN (1902-1944)
Grand Duo for violin and cello (1929-30) [25:15]
String Trio (1921) [8:14]
Piano Trio (1921) [13:10]
Cello Concerto (1925) [9:45]
La Ceinture (1934) [2:17]
La Dormeuse (1934) [3:08]
Ophélie (1939) [7:40]
Four Epigrams (1934) [4:49]
Allegro for piano (1920) [2:49]
Toccata for piano (1936) [3:42]
Suite for piano (1924) [12:04]
Burkhard Maiss (violin)
Bogdan Jianu, Clive Greensmith (cello)
Hannah Strijbos (viola)
Andrei Banciu, Beth Nam (piano)
Irene Maessen (soprano)
rec. 2016/17, Berlin NaturTonStudi; Splendor Amsterdam; Thayer Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles
Song texts but no translations
ETCETERA KTC1590 [52:51 + 36:55]

Paul (Pál) Hermann (1902-44) is one of the forgotten executant-composers of the 1920s and 30s. A student of Leó Weiner and Kodály, his career as an important cellist worked in parallel with his series of compositions, the earliest of which date from his studies at the Liszt Academy in Budapest and the last of which were written in 1939. He was a close friend first of Zoltán Székely and of Endre (later André) Gertler, both violinists whose careers were later to be of international importance, so their duo performances together give some indication of Hermann’s stature as an instrumentalist. Hermann moved first to Berlin in the early 20s, then Brussels and Paris. His Dutch wife died in tragic circumstances in 1933 and he himself was soon caught up in the war when, after military service and demobilization after the French defeat, he escaped to Vichy where he was to be arrested in 1944 and shipped East to his death.

The Grand Duo of 1929-30 was written for performance at the Wigmore Hall in London after Hermann and Székely had triumphed there in their March 1929 premiere. It’s a lively neo-classical piece with strong folkloric elements, full of accelerations and slowings and strongly structured in three well-characterised movements. The finale has Hungarian Dance patterns that sound akin to a Polka. Back at the start of the 1920s he had composed a String Trio in one compact movement – it seems he never got around to completing it - which shows more evidence of the twilight influence of Expressionism (maybe Zemlinsky) as well as a genuine appreciation of his compatriot Bartók. These early pieces show Hermann trying on coats of many colours, stylistically speaking, and the Piano Trio, which seems also to be a torso, shows the augmented influence of his teacher Kodály, though it ratchets tension to a considerable degree – terse and intense and very uneasy. The track listing dates this to 1924, the booklet notes to 1921. From the evidence that it was performed at the Academy I’d opt for the latter and have amended my track listing accordingly.

If you thought that was brief, the 1925 Cello Concerto clocks in at just under ten minutes. Again, it reveals the exiguous nature of the state of the survival of scores, and the fact that a busy young player such as Hermann just never found the time to complete large-scale compositions. It’s a shame, as this is the first evidence of Hermann’s eloquent and radiant romanticism harnessed profitably to Kodály’s ever-present influence.

The second disc offers songs and piano works. The Valéry settings embrace romance but also melancholy but much the most extensive of his surviving songs is the eight-minute Rimbaud setting, which is enriched by his immersion in the French tradition and reveals little, if any, Hungarian influence. The only piece to be published during his lifetime was the Four Epigrams of 1934, brief, cocky and slightly jazzy pieces that seem to have absorbed variously North African elements as well as some insouciant borrowings from Poulenc. There’s an energetic, youthful Allegro for Piano from 1920, a Schumannesque Toccata of 1936 and, to end, the Suite for Piano. This was recently found in the archives of pianist Géza Frid whose life followed a similar trajectory to that of Hermann; a fellow student at the Liszt Academy who traveled west and had strong Dutch connections. The Suite shows enthusiasm for folk dance, for the cimbalom but also, in the longest, final movement for the cleansing palette of Ravel.

It would be good to know how many recordings Hermann made. I’ve found a reference to a Handel Parlophone 78 made in c.1931 in Berlin, which sounds right as he was part of an early music ensemble with harpsichordist Alice Ehlers at around this time. It’s even on YouTube, though Erwin Bodky is playing in the ensemble, not Ehlers.

It’s clear that life on the road made large-scale composition difficult and the necessity to earn money to support his family would have sapped still further the time needed to concentrate. With good recordings and booklet notes, these loyal and dedicated performances make a fine case for Hermann’s attractive, non-combative pieces.

Jonathan Woolf