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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Abendempfindung an Laura, K.523, Kantate: Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls Schöpfer ehrt, K.619
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Ein kleines Haus, Hob.XXVIa/45, Lob der Faulheit, Hob.XXVIa/22, Das Leben ist ein Traum, Hob.XXVIa/21, Geistliches Lied, Hob.XXVIa/17
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Sechs Lieder von Gellert, op.48, Maigesang, op.52/4, Gesang aus der Ferne, WoO 137, Zärtliche Liebe (Ich liebe dich), WoO 123, Wonne der Wehmut, op.83/1, An die Hoffnung, op.94
Robert Holl (bass-baritone), David Lutz (piano)
Recorded 27-30 October 1997, Evangelisch Lutherse Kerk, Haarlem NL
CHALLENGE CC 72054 [67:30]

 

Lieder from the days before Lieder existed? Well, there does tend to be the idea that many of the pieces for voice and piano by these composers are homely little strophic settings with elementary piano accompaniments and ever so many verses, and indeed they each wrote a certain number of such songs (as did Schubert in his earliest days). But exceptions by all three quickly come to mind and, as this disc shows, there is more than enough material to fill a CD without recourse to any of the ultra-simple ones.

And more; for while examples of "proto-Lied" are to be found (the opening Mozart item and Beethoven’s Maigesang), this recital also allows us to hear that these three composers suggested lines of exploration and development that Schubert and the later Lieder composers chose not to explore and develop. One is the cantata, a fairly extended work in several movements, each maybe prefaced by a recitative. Mozart’s K.619 is declaredly an example and Beethoven’s An die Hoffnung arguably another. Another line is the quasi-operatic scena – Beethoven’s Wonne der Wehmut – while Haydn sometimes seems to suggest an instrumental-style piece that just happens to have words and a vocal part. So altogether there is much to interest here.

Robert Holl has a magnificently firm Sarastro-like voice and years of experience in singing Lieder, always aiming for clarity of diction, taking time to express the words but never at the expense of musical line. If only he did not apparently feel obliged to carry the troubles of the world on his shoulders! If you compare his Wonne der Wehmut with that by Iris Vermillion and Peter Stamm (on CPO), the mezzo allows the music to flow a little more naturally (2:44 against 2:55), expressing a heartfelt response more through the overall line. It’s enough to make the difference between thinking, at the end, that it would be nice to hear it again, and looking anxiously at the programme-list and thinking "only one more to go". Then, in the Beethoven op.48 cycle, while one would not wish the second song to be trivialized, it is marked "Lebhaft doch nicht zu sehr" (Allegro ma non troppo) and it hardly goes any faster here than the previous song. And is the tiny no.5, marked "Mit Kraft und Feuer", not intended to be thrown off as a brief moment of exaltation?

I am also puzzled by Haydn’s Lob der Faulheit (In Praise of Laziness), since the note by Clemens Häslinger states that "This cheerful little gem allows the singer the opportunity for comic characterisation". Since Holl sings it with a seriousness that might not come amiss in the Lord’s Prayer, I am left wondering if Häslinger is having us on rather in the manner of the students in Jerome K. Jerome’s celebrated account of human hypocrisy, Herr Schlossen-Bosschen’s comic song (it was not a comic song at all but the public, having been "tipped off" by the students, and not wishing to admit to ignorance of the German language, roared with laughter throughout, to the fury of Herr Schlossen-Bosschen). Or maybe Häslinger is right and Holl is not strong on humour. Having no alternative performance to hand I shall have to leave the question unanswered for now.

The pianist gets things off to a poor start, making a rallentando at the end of every bar in Mozart’s Abendempfindung. Since he insists on stopping at every lamp-post even after the voice has entered, this song becomes rather a pain. Suffice to say that anyone who has heard Gieseking play this accompaniment for Elizabeth Schwarzkopf will take a dim view of Lutz’s handling of it. Fortunately this is not typical; the rest is well and I can imagine that Holl would have been delighted with such an attentive accompanist. Listen to the end of An die Hoffnung and hear how the singer inflects his line, a breath here, a comma there, and hear, too, how the piano is so totally at one with the singer in all these little rhythmic inflections that the singer might almost have been accompanying himself. But is it advisable to indulge the singer so completely? Harry Plunket Greene, one of the great Lieder singers of the early 20th Century, thought not:

"There are still some people who say of the accompanist, ‘He followed the singer beautifully’. Heaven help the singer if he did! If the singer knows that the accompanist will follow him, he will count upon it; the struggle with Nature will be too strong for his will power and, fight as he may, he will find himself stopping the song to breathe." (Interpretation and Song, 1924)

Of course Plunket Greene did not want the pianist to plough on regardless of the singer; he is using a paradox to suggest that, since singers of their nature will hold the song up and pull phrases out of shape to suit their pulmonary and vocal convenience, a sympathetic accompanist can be invaluable in calling them to heel. If Lutz had exercised this prerogative, ever so gently, here and there along the way, I suggest the cumulative effect of the recital would have been a shade less heavy.

All the same, it is an interesting programme sung by a fine voice and a sensitive interpreter, and you are not obliged to hear it all at one go. The recording is fine, the notes well-written and texts are provided, but without translations.

Christopher Howell



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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