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Anna Prohaska describes herself as ‘something of a European mix’, with Austrian Jewish blood on her father’s side and working- class Anglo-Irish roots from her mother. Both families saw their fair share of war during the 20th century and it’s this history that inspired Prohaska to record Behind the Lines, her latest recital disc featuring songs about the drama and tragedy of warfare across the ages.

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting musical tribute to the millions of lives lost in conflict: this is brilliantly conceived programming performed with incredible artistry, giving equal weight to the song texts as well as their music. The engineering is also superb, capturing every nuance of Prohaska’s singing and the vivid playing of pianist Eric Schneider.

Theirs is a bold venture, moving back and forth through musical history to encompass repertoire as stylistically varied as the melancholic Elizabethan song ‘Wand’ring in This Place’ by Michael Cavendish to the anguished dissonance of ‘Untergang’ from Wolfgang Rihm’s 1968-71 collection Gesänge. Yet so well has the collection been chosen and sequenced to find affinities of meaning, sensibility and key between each item and the next, there are no jarring gear changes. Indeed, the cumulative effect of this approach highlights the shared humanity of people affected by war through time and across continents. Songs in German and English predominate, leavened by French and Russian repertoire; Prohaska, an excellent linguist, excels in all.

A variety of viewpoints also characterises the collection, which avoids becoming one long, solemn meditation on death and destruction. Swashbuckling jingoism also has its place in the history of warfare, as Beethoven’s ‘Die Trommel gerühret’ (Beat the Drum) and Weill’s ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ remind us. Several songs explore the experience of women in times of war, ranging from the sadness of a lover left behind in Rachmaninov’s ‘Polyubila ya na pecˇal’ svoyu’ (I have become infatuated with my own sorrow) to the heroic fortitude of Liszt’s ‘Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher’ (Joan of Arc at the Stake).

There are one or two songs that might not hold every listener’s attention in a different context, but Behind the Lines works wonderfully as a whole. The cumulative effect is engrossing, atmospheric and moving.

Owen Mortimer Read the full review on Agora Classica


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