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Dvořák and His Age
Dvorák Centenary Song Recital

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Vier Lieder op.2 [09:23] (1), Abendlieder op.3: Die Sternlein hoch am Himmelszelt [01:36], Ich bin der kühne Märchenprinz [01:32], Voll Freude schuf den Menschen Gott [04:03] (2), Vier Lieder op.82: 1. Lasst mich allein [04:27], 4. Am Bache [01:12] (3)
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Lieder op.48: 5. Zur Rosenheit [02:43], 6. Ein Traum [02:14] (3)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Lieder op.43: 2. Die Mainacht [03:19], 1. Von ewiger Liebe [05:00]
DVOŘÁK

Cigánské melodie op.55: 1. Má píseň zas mi láskou zní [02:47], 2. Aj! Kterak trojhranec můj [01:16], 4. Když mne stará matka [02:23], 7. Dejte klec jestřábu [02:27] (4), Mährische Duette op.32 [29:53] (1, 3)
ANON. arr. Henry Thacker BURLEIGH (1866-1949)

Deep River [02:19], By an’ By [01:45], Steal Away to Jesus [03:52] (2)
Arthur FARWELL (1877-1952)

Three Indian Songs op.32 [09:11] (4)
Charles Wakefield CADMAN (1881-1946)

Four American Indian Songs op.45: 1. From the Land of Sky-blue Water [01:51], 4. The Moon Drops Low [02:22] (4)
Edward MacDOWELL (1860-1908)

Eight Songs op.47: 7. The Sea [02:21] (4)
Charles IVES (1874-1954)

Songs my mother taught me [02:58] (4)
DVOŘÁK

Love Songs op.83: 1. Never will love lead us [01:45], 2. Death reigns in many a human breast [02:21], 3. I wander oft past yonder house [01:10], 4. I know that on my love to thee [02:16], 7. When thy sweet glances [01:55], 8. Thou only dear one [02:15] (1)
BRAHMS

Vier ernste Gesänge op.121 [17:54] (2)
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Urlicht [05:14] (1)
DVOŘÁK

Biblické písně op.99: 1. Oblak a mrákota jest [02:19], 3. Slyš, o Bože! [03:45], 4. Hospodin jest můj pastýř [03:10], 7. Při řekách babylonských [03:20], 10. Zpívejte Hospodinu píseň novou [02:25] (4)
Barbara Bonney (3, soprano), Michelle Breedt (1, mezzo), Thomas Hampson (4, baritone), Georg Zeppenfeld (2, bass), Wolfram Rieger (piano)
Recorded live in the Kleines Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 17 August 2004
ORFEO C 656 052I[76:01 + 79:12]


For the sake of argument I have reproduced the titles of the Dvořák songs as they appear in the booklet; as will be seen shortly, there is actually quite a lot to argue about.

For the Salzburg Festival of 2004 Thomas Hampson and his friends decided to celebrate the centenary of Dvořák’s birth with a three-hour marathon entitled “Dvořák and his Age”. A first section compared Dvořák’s settings of German and Czech words not only with each other but with Brahms on the one hand and Grieg on the other. The second part began by examining the American context, with arrangements of the Spirituals and Indian songs Dvořák himself advocated his pupils using, a song by the leading American composer contemporary with Dvořák and Ives’s setting of the same words as those of Dvořák’s own most famous song. The final section took a look at songs of religious inspiration. Orfeo give us here as much as could be put onto two CDs – the song-cycles heard here in excerpted form were actually performed complete. They provide texts and translations, though English-speaking readers are warned that, since two languages are provided in each case, while German texts are translated into English (and vice-versa), Czech texts are translated only into German.

A wonderful idea, unfortunately undermined by the homemade musicology on which it is based. My eyebrows immediately rose when I saw that the "American" section concluded with what the notes refer to as "Dvořák’s English love songs”. How on earth Hampson and friends could be under such a misapprehension I cannot begin to imagine. The first edition (Simrock) is quite clear (and is confirmed by the Burghauser catalogue); Dvořák’s op.83 was a setting of poems by G. Pfleger-Moravský (Orfeo’s booklet names the authors of the other songs but not these); also provided was a German translation by O. Malybrok-Stieler (printed here without acknowledgement) and English words by "Mrs. John P. Morgan of New York" with a note that "Mrs. Morgan’s translation is the only translation authorized by the composer". The mere fact that English words were provided does not make them English songs! Any song published for the English or American market in those days would automatically have had an English version (Mrs. John P. Morgan also obliged for op.82, here sung in German) but these, far from being “Dvořák’s English love songs”, are his “Pisně milostné” and should have been sung in Czech. Moreover, though published in 1889, they actually comprise eight numbers (whether revised or left unchanged I don’t know) from a cycle written back in 1865 called “Cyprĭse”. This work, consisting of eighteen songs, had personal associations which remained painful to Dvořák throughout his life and he plundered it frequently while suppressing it as a whole.

In view of this, I thought it better to check the other songs too, Burghauser catalogue in hand.

The "Vier Lieder" op.2 are correctly titled. They are in fact a further four of the "Cyprĭse"; obviously, they were written in Czech and are here sung in that language.

The “Abendlieder op.3” are sung by Zeppenfeld in German. It would seem strange that a poet called Vitězlav Hálek should have written in German and it is clear from Burghauser that he didn’t; these songs come from a set of 12 “Vecerní písne” (Evening Songs) op.31 (not op.3) written in c.1876. The op.3 confusion was Dvořák’s own since in 1882 he published two of them with orchestral accompaniment as op.3. Obviously, they should have been sung in Czech.

The "Vier Lieder" op.82 were also published at the same time as op.83 but were new works. According to the original Simrock edition, this time the words were poems (not translations) by O. Malybrok-Stieler. Czech words were provided (together with Mrs. John P. Morgan’s English translation) but the author is not given. So it looks as if the German (sung here) is the original for once, maybe something to do with the dedication to Sophie Hanslick, and Burghauser backs this by giving the German titles first instead of second. However, he does also tell us that the words were based on Czech folk poems, presumably the poems printed with the music, so which did Dvořák have in mind when he was composing? The question is not merely academic, for in the first song – a beautiful piece of which Barbara Bonney makes surprisingly little – the use of the Czech text would mean rhythmic changes and would require the singer to breathe in different places, altering the phrasing and so changing our perception of the music.

Oddly enough, in the case of the well-known "Gypsy Songs", here sung in Czech, there might be a case for singing them in German since they were composed in that language to poems by Adolf Heyduk (not "Heyduck" as repeatedly printed here) in answer to a commission from an Austrian tenor. But Dvořák deliberately composed them from the beginning so that they could also be sung in Czech and there is no doubt that he preferred them in that language.

The booklet insists that the "Moravian Duets” are “all sung in the original language”. They are sung in German. Dvořák’s source was a collection of Moravian folksongs compiled by František Sušil and it does seem odd that it should have been in German. Burghauser gives the Czech titles first so he evidently thought the original to be Czech. The original Simrock edition provided the usual three languages without indicating which was the original. The curious thing is that the German words in the Simrock edition are quite different from those sung here (also the English words in the booklet are different from those in Simrock). Since the two versions both seem to be saying the same thing in different ways, my conviction is reinforced that two independent translations exist of the Czech original.

Dvořák’s other well-known cycle, the Bible Songs, was of course written, and is here sung, in Czech.

You may be wondering at this point about the Grieg songs in German but no, while most of his songs are in Norwegian he did write Lieder from time to time, including op.48. "Zur Rosenheit" has a text by Goethe.

The inescapable conclusion is that many of the points which Hampson is trying to make lose their validity when the songs prove not to have been written in the language he supposes. Was the Salzburg Festival really too hard up to bring in some knowledgeable professor from Prague to sort all this out, or failing that, to buy a copy of the Burghauser catalogue?

It would be nice to say that the music-making is so wonderful that none of this matters too much, but alas there are things to complain about there, too.

Michelle Breedt is a personable, sometimes reckless young singer. She certainly does everything with conviction – she is a pupil of Brigitte Fassbaender – and, though she and the pianist have ensemble problems at the start of op.83 and are aggressively insensitive with "I wander oft past yonder house" the remainder are finely done and her "Urlicht" is very beautiful. Sadly, Barbara Bonney’s lovely voice seems to be developing a beat these days. Surprisingly, I enjoyed most "Von ewiger Liebe" where the drama compels her to focus her tone more. But her singing of the line "Spricht das Mägdelein" is incredibly fussy. It’s only a preface to the second part of the song – "The maiden spoke" – and she sounds as if she is relating a suicide. In the "Moravian Duets" only token attention is paid to any dynamic marking other than "forte", robbing these delightful pieces of most of their enchantment.

Whatever Hampson’s shortcomings as a musicologist there is no doubt he is a fine singer. The American group is particularly welcome, the Cadman songs being especially attractive. Unfortunately the pianist plays havoc with the "Gypsy Songs". I realize that more than one disc deriving from the Czech Republic seems to indicate a tradition of playing the piano introduction, interlude and postlude of the first song in a faster tempo than the rest of the song, but Rieger goes at it hammer and tongs. Dvořák knew what he was doing and the song acquires a new stature if played as written. Similarly, Rieger distorts the rhythm in the piano episodes of the last song quite abominably. It is irredeemably ugly and none of the Czech performances I have heard find this necessary. In “Songs my mother taught me” Dvořák’s carefully noted cross-rhythms (6/8 against 2/4) are evened out so that the chords coincide with the voice part, misrepresenting the music. It’s by no means easy to get this song right, but these are professionals, they no doubt got a handsome fee so we have a right to expect them to do things properly. Fortunately the pianist behaves himself in the "Biblical Songs" which are very fine as long as you accept the traditional view that these all have to be performed as slow as possible – which is not what Dvořák’s markings seem to indicate. The equation “the slower it is the more spiritual it is” doesn’t always work.

In the other music Rieger plays perfectly respectfully (if he has no respect for Dvořák, why does he play him?) and Zeppenfeld sings the Brahms "Vier ernste Gesänge" with a noble simplicity which Michelle Breedt might do well to study. The first three seem to me ideal; the last may be too, if you accept that by "Andante mosso" Brahms meant a galloping allegro (by no means an unusual view in this song). Strange: normally "Andante" in Brahms tempts performers into going too slow.

All in all this looks like a wonderful opportunity sadly mismanaged. Yes, there are good things here and not all the material is readily obtainable elsewhere. There is no doubt that Dvořák was an important composer of songs and strange to tell, I don’t recollect a complete survey ever having been made – not even by Supraphon, usually so willing to give us complete sets of Dvořák’s works for this or that medium. Hyperion? Naxos? Any plans?

Christopher Howell

 

 



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