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Liza LEHMANN (1862-1918)
Cherry Ripe [2’37"]
from The Daisy Chain [12’47"]
Bird Sings [9’16"]
Magdalen at Michael’s Gate [3’34"]
Evensong [2’35"]
Endymion [7’15"]
Music when soft voices die [2’25"]
To a little red spider [2’47"]
Dusk in the Valley [2’39"]
The Lily of a Day [2’30"]
When I am dead, my dearest [2’30"]
Four Cautionary Tales and a Moral [17’00"]
My true friend hath my hat [1’43"]
Two Nonsense Songs from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ [5’22"]
Janice Watson (soprano); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano); Toby Spence (tenor); Neal Davies (baritone); Steuart Bedford (piano)
rec. Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London, 1–3 April 1997. DDD
The English Song Series. Volume 8
NAXOS 8.557118 [75’00"]

 

This is yet another in the very praiseworthy reissues by Naxos of the Collins Classics English Song series. What a shame it would have been if these valuable recitals had fallen victim to the demise of the Collins label. Naxos are doing a real service by making them available once again.

Liza Lehmann is perhaps best known as the composer of There are fairies at the bottom of our garden (not included here). However she deserves to be remembered for far more than that, not least because she carved out a successful career for herself both as a composer and as a singer at a time when it was certainly difficult for a woman to gain acceptance as a composer. The British-born daughter of a well-known German portrait painter, she was born into a family that mixed easily in artistic circles. Liszt, for example, was an acquaintance of her parents. Later, as Keith Anderson relates in his liner notes, Liza was able to study singing with Jenny Lind and she spent a short time visiting Clara Schumann and studying with her the lieder of Robert Schumann.

She seems to have begun to compose at a fairly early age. For a while the pursuit of a singing career took priority (1885 -1894) but after her marriage in 1894 she forsook the concert platform and concentrated her musical energies once again into composition, while raising a family. The younger of her two sons was Lesley Bedford, one of whose own sons is the conductor and pianist, Steuart Bedford, the pianist on this CD. If I may say so, he serves his grandmother’s music admirably both as pianist and, I strongly suspect, as a compiler of this programme.

What is Liza Lehmann’s music like? Well, it appears to me to be well-crafted and also understandingly written for the voice - as befits a singer-composer. I haven’t seen any music but I wouldn’t think that too many of the songs are exceptionally demanding to sing. That’s in no way to belittle the standards achieved here for all five performers have clearly invested a considerable amount of skill and effort to ensure that the music is performed to the highest possible standard, the better to show it off. Some of the music, however, clearly is technically demanding. I’m thinking in particular of Magdalen at Michael’s Gate, which was written for Nellie Melba, no less, and who frequently performed it. As a general observation, on the evidence of this programme, the better the poetry that Lehmann chose to set, the better the music she wrote. Thus I’m less impressed, for example, by the excerpts from the cycle The Daisy Chain than by, for example, When I am dead, my dearest, a setting of words by Christina Rossetti.

However, one thing that particularly distinguishes Liza Lehmann is her musical sense of humour. The programme includes several songs which are settings of overtly humorous texts, such as the Hilaire Belloc poems that comprise Four Cautionary Tales and a Moral or the selections from Lewis Carroll that form the texts for Two Nonsense Songs from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Again, the excerpts from The Daisy Chain represent good quality light music. It may be argued that none of these songs are "great music" but Lehmann seems to me to display a pleasing and genuine lightness of touch. Her songs are well written and set out to entertain.

Her music is in very safe hands on this disc. All four singers pay her songs the compliment of treating them as proper art songs and they sing them characterfully and well. Janice Watson, for example, is eloquent in The Lily of a Day and, indeed, in When I am dead, my dearest, which follows it on the disc. Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Neal Davies combine to make a very good job of the five Belloc settings, Four Cautionary Tales and a Moral, which conveniently comprise one solo for each of them and three duets. In these items they don’t overdo the humorous side but, crucially, they don’t underplay it, either. On just one point I would have welcomed a bit more information in the documentation. We hear six songs from the cycle, The Daisy Chain but we aren’t told how many songs are left out. Also, all four singers take part in The Daisy Chain. Is this how it was originally conceived or did Lehmann write it for a single voice?

Helpfully Naxos print all the texts (in English) but, quite honestly the diction of all four singers is very good and I found little difficulty in following without the texts. Full marks to Naxos for giving us the texts, however, when many other more expensive labels omit this courtesy to the listener.

This is a most enjoyable disc. For me, this is high quality light music performed to a very high standard; and I mean that as a compliment, for genuinely good light music, which this is, is as hard to write as it is to interpret successfully. While not all the songs strike me as being equally successful, at her best Liza Lehmann wrote very enjoyable and entertaining songs which should give great pleasure to listeners and performers alike. I suspect the performers on this CD enjoyed themselves – they sound as if they did – and I think listeners will enjoy the disc just as much. Well worth investigating, especially at the Naxos price.

John Quinn



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