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Bruno WALTER (1876-1962)
Tragödie I-II-III op. 12/4-6 [06:31]; Des Kindes schlaf [02:12], Die Lerche [03:35], Elfe [01:46]; Waltrautís Lied I op.11/3 [01:43], Waltrautís Lied II op.11/4, Liebeslust op.11/6 [03:14]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Freundliche Vision op.48/1 [02:45], Das Rosenband op.36/1 [03:37], Nachtgang op.29/3 [02:44], Muttertändelei op.43/2 [02:08]; Mädchenblumen, 4 Lieder op.22 [09:40], Hat gesagt , bleibtís nicht dabei op.36/3 [02:04], Du meines Herzens Krönelein op.21/2 [02:01], Traum durch die Dämmerung op.29/1 [02:54], Schlechtes Wetter op69/5 [02:17]
Joseph MARX (1882-1964)

Hat dich die Liebe berührt [02:53], Ein Drängen ist in meinem Herzen [01:14], Traumgekrönt [02:05], Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht [01:44]
Emma Bell (soprano), Andrew West (piano)
Recorded 5th-7th April 2004 at Potton Hall
SA-CD heard on CD equipment
LINN CKD 238 [58:33]

There are some records where you listen so spellbound that comparisons seem beside the point; however good, however different the alternatives, the disc you are hearing can only remain supremely valid. And there are some discs where you start to bring out the comparisons almost from the beginning.

Iím afraid that, for me, this was one of the latter, even in the opening three linked Heine settings by Bruno Walter where the comparisons were actually with other composers, but Iíll come to that later.

Emma Bellís voice seems rich and creamy enough for Strauss, yet doubts begin early. Is there not to much squally vibrato? Does she not revel too much in the easy solution of a Technicolor splurge in Straussís upward phrases, at the expense of long-term control? Montserrat Caballé in Freundliche Vision (1964: RCA Red Seal 82876 511912) could be thought almost pedantic in her placing of every syllable and certainly in Schlechtes Wetter she seems almost aggressively concerned to show that a Spanish diva really can sing Lieder. Yet what a securely placed, vibrant but steady voice she had at that stage, rock solid in her final ascent at the end of the latter song. Her Traum durch die Dämmerung is a prima donnaís performance in the best sense, its arching long lines maybe less attentive to the accompaniment below her than in the case of some Lieder specialists, but always leading the ear onwards. Alongside this Bell seems hollow and sketchy. Itís also noticeable how much more forward and vivid is the recording quality on the Caballé disc. Have recording standards, as well as vocal ones, really declined so much in the last forty years?

With Das Rosenband it was the turn of Teresa Cahill, whose recently reissued 1981/2 Strauss and Rachmaninov performances (Diversions 24114) aroused my enthusiasm not long ago. Would they still stand up? Yes, indeed, for here was a voice which, if without the full-organ solidity of Caballé, was nevertheless steadily, evenly produced, with the right sumptuousness for Strauss and a sense of line that leaves Bell standing. Cahillís record actually contains two performances of this song (for reasons which I explain in my review); though I was trying to be very careful and to listen with a critical ear, in the second of the two performances I was quite overwhelmed as Cahill began the last stanza. This is the sort of tingle factor that Bell just canít create because she hasnít the vocal security (at present) to do so. A further five of Bellís selected songs are also to be found on Cahillís disc, and they all tell the same story.

Nachtgang brought a comparison with a singer closer to Bellís own generation, Katarina Karnéus (EMI CDZ 5 73168 2). Even taking into account the fact that Karnéus is a mezzo, it is quite incredible to what an extent it seems different song, for Karnéus has such a firmer sense of line, so much more sense of the overall shape of the song, which seems to last half the length (though itís actually 6 seconds longer). But then, Karnéus has a rock-steady voice production on which to build her interpretation. Since she is also finely recorded, it now appears that vocal and recording standards have not necessarily declined over the last forty years after all. Beside either of these three singers, Iím afraid that Bell sounds vague in her intentions, technically unprepared and, frankly, amateurish.

With so few Marx songs on record, it is a pity that two of Bellís should duplicate those chosen by Karnéus in her selection of five. Or perhaps it isnít such a pity, since the comparison shows that we cannot give too much credence to the performances here of the other two. Karnéusís more thoughtful approach finds quite a lot more in Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht but it is above all in Hat dich die Liebe berührt that Karnéus produces a truly great performance, her heartfelt simplicity and steady build-up towards the climax quite transforming the song.

Under the circumstances, our judgement of Bruno Walter as a composer must be tentative. Certainly, he dropped composition early on and, unlike Furtwängler and Klemperer, neither returned to it in later life nor attempted to promote any of his works. He would, I suppose, have been flattered when Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau took up the three Eichendorff settings (the group beginning with Des Kindes Schlaf), and if you want to hear Walter the composer in his best light, maybe you should seek out the DF-D recordings, which drift in and out of the catalogue. Walter was undoubtedly a warm-hearted composer with a dab hand at atmospheric accompaniments (he was a very fine pianist as well as a great conductor) and a feeling for soaring vocal phrases which must be lovely to sing. But with regard to this latter, as a "sort of composer" myself, I know how easy it is to launch into ecstatically upward-soaring Straussian phrases when youíre not quite sure what to do next, and how grateful singers can be to you when you do this! With all due respect, I fear Walter is often guilty of these easy solutions, so it is interesting to compare the opening Heine mini-cycle Tragödie with settings of the same poem by Anton Rubinstein and Stanford (the latter is available in a not very satisfactory performance on Hyperion; so far as I know the Rubinstein is unavailable). Both were full-time composers in a way Walter wasnít and both were classicists who rejected the easy solution, and this shows in the clear-cut nature of their themes and the economy of their workmanship which enables each song to unfold before the public with a precise form. They were variably inspired, it is true, but Stanfordís surging opening (echoed memorably at the end, a suggestion that the tragedy is about to be re-enacted) and Rubinsteinís haunting final pages surely strike a higher note than anything in the Walter, which perhaps tries to hard for its own good.

The contribution from pianist Andrew West is excellent, there is a useful note and texts and English translations are provided. Having found the recording not exceptionally vivid, I should add that I heard it as a straight CD; maybe on SACD equipment itís another story.

Christopher Howell

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