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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Biblical Songs Op.99 (1894) [24.21]
In Folk Tone Op.73 (1886) [10.32]
Gypsy Songs Op.55 (1880) [24.20]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Five Evening Songs (1879) [7.53]
Jaro Lásky [Privní písnĕ, No.1] (1846) [2.02]
Barbara Ulricca Theler (soprano)
Bruno Canino (piano)
Recorded in the Tonstudio van Geest in Sandhausen, Heidelberg, March 2004
CLAVES 50-2411 [58.56]


Swiss soprano Barbara Ulricca Theler here essays a canonic all-Czech recital, which she spices with all of the songs from In Folk Tone and the relatively infrequently heard Smetana Five Evening Songs. The Biblical and Gypsy Songs are very much more popular repertoire of course, with the former generally more associated with male singers and mezzos; Dagmar Pecková, with Irwin Gage, for example has recorded all four of the Dvořák cycles for Supraphon. Bright, forward and ringing, Theler’s voice is not one ideally suited to the greater gravities of the Biblical settings. Her interpretative stance is generally more bracing than native Czech or Slovak singers, more forward, less intense. Certainly this is a question of colour and depth across the range; less so perhaps tempo. Whilst she tends to be faster, in all ten settings, than, say, Soukupová and Moravec (not currently in the catalogues) she’s not necessarily that much quicker than Vilém Přibyl and Milan Máša or the admirable pairing of Jindřich Jindrák and Alfred Holeček.

If we compare her with the mezzo of Soukupová however we do find that what Theler makes explicit is much more occluded and expressive in the Czech performance. The Swiss soprano is really too fresh and open air for the songs; too superficial in Slyš ó Bože, tending to lack gravity in Hospodin jest můj pastyř and rather undifferentiated expressively elsewhere. I do like the rollicking of Bože, Píseňnovou zpívati budu and much is sensitively done throughout, though I can’t conceive what inspired Bruno Canino to play so oddly in the introduction to the seventh song; expressionist to the point of incoherence he and Theler turn one of the composer’s most lucid and characteristic songs to sheer mush. I felt throughout that Canino was chomping at the bit for some quasi-soloist action; he should really listen to Moravec in this repertoire to see how subtle rhythmic inflections work here. Which is odd as Canino is otherwise a fine collaborative musician with people like Perlman. Perhaps he’s impatient with the music.

In Folk Tone is in many ways an easier sing. Kožená and Graham Johnson have recorded the first song for DG and it’s instructive to compare the two. Once more Theler is much quicker and more one-dimensional. Here it’s Graham Johnson who should take some lessons from a Czech pianist – he preens too much - but Alfred Holeček for Jindrák shows how it should be done; simply, unselfconsciously and with genuine feeling. And in the second of these four settings we again find Canino not supporting his soprano, his accents drawing attention to themselves and away from the vocal line, something Holeček never does.

The Gypsy Songs are sung here in German. One doesn’t want to be prescriptive about this as native German singers often take this linguistic route; Peter Schreier is a particular case in point. Given the bulk of the programme I think Theler should have sung them in Czech; she certainly sings in the language well enough. Attractive in many ways she and Canino are never really incisive enough rhythmically and her tone can thin at the top of its compass. Certainly when compared to Bernarda Fink and Roger Vignoles on Harmonia Mundi (sung in Czech) one notices how the mezzo, at generally faster speeds even than Theler, inflects more. The Swiss recording sounds brasher and Canino’s leaden plod during the third setting hardly helps.  The Smetana songs are good to hear again though there are a few intonational buckles in this performance of the five-song eight-minute cycle. Again this is something that Vilém Přibyl and Milan Máša have sung with greater authority but one shouldn’t underestimate the Claves’ pairing in taking it on.

The recording is very slightly over-resonant though not debilitatingly so. The songs are printed in the booklet and translated into French, English and German though there aren’t notes as such about these cycles. Personally I can live without that and I’m glad Theler has given us her recording but it’s best to stick with the established recommendations above.

Jonathan Woolf


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