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Lucia Popp (soprano)

An mein Herz, D.860, Der Jüngling an der Quelle, D.300, Jägers Abendlied, D.368, Der Einsame, D.800
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)

Vier Lieder, op.2
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Drei Lieder der Ophelia op.67/1, Mein Auge, op.37/4, Meinem Kinde, op.37/3, Die Zeitlose, op.10/7, Hat gesagt – bleibt’s nicht dabei, op.36/3, Allerseelen, op. 10/8
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

V národním tónu, op.73
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Starke Einbildungskraft, Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald, Ablösung im Sommer, Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Es steht ein Lind, Wo033/41, Sehnsucht, op.14/8, We kumm ich dann de Pooz erenn? Wo033/34, Die Trauernde, op.7/5, In stiller Nacht, Wo033/42
Lucia Popp (soprano), Irwin Gage (piano – Schubert, Schoenberg, Strauss), Geoffrey Parsons (piano – other items)
Recorded during the Edinburgh Festival, Queen’s Hall, 30th August 1983 (Schubert, Schoenberg, Strauss), 13th August 1980 (others)

Often a single adjective will attach itself unbidden to the artists who cross our path and then resurface, Pavlov-like, every time the name is mentioned. In Lucia Popp’s case the adjective was "lovely". She was a "lovely" singer. We can hear at once in the Schubert group her unfailingly golden tone, always rich though not especially "big", and her warm personality pours into our sitting-rooms. In the Strauss group her voice expands and soars as a true Strauss soprano’s should; she is beautifully tender in Meinem Kinde, deeply stirring (and not just noisy) in Allerseelen, and we can judge her communicativeness by the spontaneous applause (from a non-German audience) which greets the humorous Hat gesagt. Her "loveliness" is a boon to the Schoenberg group, rising to an ecstatic performance of Waldsonne, one of the few actually "lovely" pieces he ever managed to write.

Yet a few points have to be made. If we compare her Der Jüngling an der Quelle with the studio version by Edith Wiens (on CBC) we are held spellbound by a tighter control over line in the latter which is surely an essential in Lieder singing; Popp is more generalized in her expression. On the other hand, while we might begin by preferring Wiens’s Der Einsame for the same reason, this is a longer song and about halfway through we become aware of a certain reined-in quality in Wiens which loses our attention while Popp’s bigger gestures are increasingly engaging us. To be absolutely fair we should compare studio performances with studio performances, live with live; but Popp’s name became something of a household word while Wiens, much though she was/is appreciated especially by musicians, didn’t quite, and these discs seem to suggest that the public’s judgement was about right.

Another point is that, however polyglot singers may be, the language of their infancy nevertheless stirs some basic, as it were inherited, emotion within them. The public almost forgot that Popp was from Slovakia (we expect singers from those parts to have long and unpronounceable names), but Bratislava was her home town and Slovak (which is very close to Czech) was presumably her first language, the language of her first affections, however much she felt at home in German. And so it is that in the Dvořák group she goes beyond loveliness to touch a deeper chord. If we have listened so far with a smile of appreciation, I at least felt a lump in my throat as she began these songs, which are assuredly very beautiful in any case – indeed, I can’t understand why the first has not become as popular as the so-called "Songs my mother taught me". On the other hand, though the cycle is rare this was not my first encounter with it nor even my first recording of it and it had never affected me this way before, so I think we must here declare a truly great performance from Popp which reveals an underestimated set of songs in all its beauty.

Back to "loveliness", I’d say, for the rest of the programme, though I note a tighter control over line in these 1980 tracks. Is this the way Popp’s art developed between 1980 and 1983? Does the slightly more distant 1980 recording (though in the same venue) just make it sound that way? Did Geoffrey Parsons inspire a more detailed approach while Irwin Gage stimulated her to a broader brush? I should need to assemble more Popp recordings, both studio and live, to answer this – and I am sure it would be an enriching and pleasurable experience.

The booklet contains an appreciation of the singer by Alan Blyth who, in the role of critic, has elsewhere been among the first to condemn IMG’s reprehensible policy throughout the BBC Legends series of not providing texts and translations. They tell us these can be found on their website, which was not true at the time of writing (23rd June 2004) though I suppose they’ll be posted sooner or later. Had they troubled to print them, they might even have noticed that Brahms’s Sehnsucht is not op.49/3, as stated, but the composer’s other song of the same title (but different words), op.14/8.

All the same, the record as a whole is recommended to all who treasure lovely singing; the Dvořák group is essential for collectors of great singing.

Christopher Howell

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