Timna Brauer: Songstress on A World Stage

The Austro-Israeli ­chansonière talks about Georg ­Kreisler, ­multi-lingualism and the elusive secrets of the human heart

Timna Brauer, over coffee at Café Schottenstift | Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau

Brauer is a multi-lingual Austro-Israeli ­chansonière | Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau

Brauer: "It's all about the music" | Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau

The first thing you notice about Timna Brauer is the hair, a massive voluptuous mane of curls, barely restrained by a pin here or a clip there. The second thing is her smile. It’s one that reaches clear across her face, fun loving and generous and, one imagines, one that would be very hard to resist if you were male.

But then Brauer is a singer, and seduction – in the best sense of the word – goes with the job.

We had agreed to meet at Café Schottenstift, a roomy and very pleasant Kaffeehaus that is part of the Benedictine abbey after which it is named, just in from the Ring at Schottentor. Brauer arrived promptly, photographer in tow, and swept across the room to greet me. Although I had heard her perform live on several occasions, we were meeting for the first time.

Timna Brauer, over coffee at Café Schottenstift | Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau

Timna Brauer, over coffee at Café Schottenstift | Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau

She greeted me warmly, and then set off with the photographer to explore the various spaces to find the best light, finally determining we were fine right where we were. It was a corner table next to an archway through to the other room; she took a seat at right angles, and arranged herself, and the hair, between a small print and the mirror on the wall behind. The photographer reached over to adjust some wayward strands – she laughed and did her best to cooperate. It’s a lot of hair.

A waitress came by and took orders: Brauer wanted… what was it she had seen in the vitrine? Kirschenstrudel, oder Weichsel? Ach ja, Zwetschenstrudel, a plum pastry, warm. And a Latte Macchiato, warm. No actually hot… These are exciting days for Timna Brauer, an Austrian-Israeli who grew up francophone, she has three native languages and would probably feel at home just about anywhere. After more than two decades of performing and recording in all three traditions, she is set to release her first-ever album of her own songs.

The new CD, with Klaus Paier, accordion, and Asja Valcic, cello, will be presented 4 March at Café Korb, and premiered in full concert 18 April in the Gläserner Saal of the Musikverein.

“They’re a kind of late baby,” she laughed.  They are love songs, and she has written them in French: Paroles d’Amour, “words of love”.

Why French? She’s not sure. “They just came out that way,” she shrugged. Even though after more than 20 years in Vienna, she refers to German as her “main language, the one in which I can best express myself”. Except when she talks to her mother, in which case, she switches to Hebrew, the “language of my childhood, of the emotions”. Or, apparently, when it came to writing songs, which she found herself doing in French.

“It’s like when I started keeping my first diary when I was 8, that was also in French, not German.” Who can unravel the mysteries of the human heart?

She describes the style as “a bit old fashioned” like the chansons de geste of the troubadours singing of heroic deeds and courtly love in the late middle ages. “The music just sprung up out of me, spontaneously, without a struggle, like water from a fountain, music, lyrics, music, lyrics – everything was in harmony and easy. It was probably just the right time.”

Brauer is a multi-lingual Austro-Israeli ­chansonière | Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau

Brauer is a multi-lingual Austro-Israeli ­chansonière | Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau

She mulled for a long time about how to present them, about arrangements and instrumentation. And then, on the radio station Ö1, she heard a combination she had never encountered before: an accordion and a cello, lush, yet poignant and playful, with an edge of wistfulness.It was just what she was looking for.

The French texts are filled with play, “Cette langue que chante, rechante puis enchante…” This language that sings and sings again and then enchants, … except that in French, the word for language is same as for a “tongue” that is doing the singing, and add a prefix and “singing” becomes “enchantment”. Magic.

But you know, she said, these are not “Lieder” in the German sense, but Minnesänge, love songs, in the sense of chansons d’amour, where this pallet, these emotions that we call love, can be presented in all their colours, and with wit and humour….” These emotions that we call love?

“Yes,” she agreed, not shying from the question. “What is love? Where does it begin? Where does it end? For me it is not a fixed truth; it’s always in motion, changing, revolving. A mystery. And it stays a mystery.  It is so often categorised, put in a box, so that it becomes banal.

“I don’t see those boundaries. One shouldn’t, it destroys all the Romance.”

However she did wonder about the wisdom of launching the CD in Vienna.

“From a business perspective, it is absurd to present my first solo album in Austria in French, where 90% of the audience won’t understand a word,” she said, “which is a shame, because this is not just a case of ‘amours toujours’… These songs are really written out, as poetry; these are poems.”

Shouldn’t she be doing this in Paris, where she had spent her young adult life earned a degree musicology from the Sorbonne in the mid 1970s, trained as a classical singer and studied jazz improvisation and performance, where every night she was out listening to musicians who had flocked there from the U.S., Africa, India or the Middle East. In Paris jazz and world music were the tradition, and things were happening “on every street corner”.

But then, again, maybe the language isn’t really a barrier. Later as she talked about her varied programmes, about the Klezmer music with lyrics in Hebrew, English folksongs or American jazz or the great French chansoniers like Edit Piaf, Jacques Brel or Georges Bressans, and she described how her Austrian audiences responded with equal enthusiasm to the new as to the familiar, to the “foreign” as to anything she sung in German. Maybe Viennese audiences trained in the opera are accustomed to transcending language, to hearing story in sound.

“In the end,” she said, “it’s always about the music.”

Brauer: "It's all about the music" | Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau

Brauer: “It’s all about the music” | Photo: Wilhelm von Lüttichau

Vienna had lured her back in 1986 for the Eurovision Song Contest, singing “Die Zeit ist Einsam”, translated as “And when the Night Comes” (music by Peter Janda and lyrics by Peter Cornelius) which she won – bringing Austria it’s first title in 20 years and her to rediscover the city she had left behind. She had assumed she would make her life in Paris; Vienna had been asleep in the 70s, verschlafen.

But the city she rediscovered was changing. As Vienna entered the 90s, a world music scene was developing, from Brazil and North Africa, and a growing community of Jazzmen from North America and beyond. And there was money around for the arts, for actors and musicians, for small theatres, clubs and venues. Suddenly, Vienna began to make sense.

The other new venture for Timna Brauer is an evening of Viennese songs of two greats of Vienna’s post-war cabaret, Georg Kreisler and Gerhard Bronner, both Jews, both returned emigrés who would be turning 90 this month. Written and directed by Bela Koreny, co-star Wolf Bachofner will be (mostly) recreating Bronner, the quintessential political satirist, and she will (mostly) be Kreisler, “the philosopher”.

(“He felt like an eternal wanderer,” she said, quoting: “When someone says he is going home, he has most probably chosen the wrong word.”)

He was also a biting social critic, creator of Tauben vergiften im Park (poisoning pigeons in the park) and Wien ohne Wiener (Vienna without the Viennese), Kreisler’s deliciously wicked rant from the 1950s about Kreisler’s ill-tempered, self-satisfied (and anti-Semitic) fellow citizens that Brauer finds too nasty to perform.

But as a genius of song and lyric, she has only praise. “Through Kreisler, I discovered just what the German language is capable of, playful without being mannered. The language blossoms, even when he is very sarcastic and nasty, immediately the humour takes over, transformed with imagery.” Packed with word pictures and a real challenge to pull off.

(“I really have to concentrate,” she admitted, “or I get completely lost.”)

And the worst of it is that this time, the audience will understand every word.


A Georg Kreisler-Gerhard Bronner Evening

“Der G’Schupfte Ferdl geht Tauben Vergiften im Park” 

Timna Brauer, Wolf Bachofner, Bela Koreny

Café Korb, Mar. 20, 21, 22, 23

20:00, doors open: 19:30; €20,00

Res: 0676-944 24 65;  in German


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