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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Lieder und Gesänge
Resignation, WoO 149 (1817) [3:33]
Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel, WoO 150 (1820) [5:26]
Andenken, WoO 136 (1805?) [3:02]
La Tiranna, WoO 125 (1799) [3:01]
An die Hoffnung, Op. 32 (1805) [4:59]
Ruf vom Berge, WoO 147 (1817) [2:04]
Klage, WoO 113 [2:56]
Selbstgespräch, WoO 114 [3:50]
Adelaide, Op. 46 (1794/5) [6:02]
Wonne der Wehmuth, Op. 83 No 1 (1810) [2:25]
Sehnsucht, Op. 83 No 2 (1810) [2:20]
Mit einem gemahlten Band, Op 83 No 3 (1810) [1:54]
Gesang aus der Ferne, WoO 137 (1810) [4:36]
Die laute Klage, WoO 135 (1814/15) [3:14]
Lebensglück, Op 88 (1803) [2:21]
Der Wachtelschlag, WoO 129 [4:07]
An die Hoffnung, Op. 94 (1816) [7:24]
An die ferne Geliebte, Op 98 (1816) [14:18]
John Mark Ainsley (tenor) Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. St Paul’s Church, Deptford, UK, 1-3 May 2008 DDD
German texts and English translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD145 [77:43]
Experience Classicsonline

This is the second instalment of Signum Classics’ exploration of the songs of Beethoven. The first instalment (SIGCD139) was reviewed favourably last December and featured low voices - the mezzo-soprano, Ann Murray and the baritone, Roderick Williams. Now we hear a high voice in the shape of another fine British singer, tenor John Mark Ainsley. As before, the pianist is the redoubtable Iain Burnside.

Beethoven’s is not the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of lieder. Susan Youens hits the nail squarely on the head in her scholarly but very readable notes, when she states of Beethoven: “Song was not his native tongue.” Earlier in her essay she writes of the composer’s “discomfiture with vocal writing”, a statement with which I think any of us who have sung in performances of, say, the ‘Choral’ symphony or, even more so, the Missa Solemnis would heartily concur. In those works Beethoven seems to think of the human voice in instrumental terms and at times he’s pretty careless of the demands that he’s placing on lungs or larynx.

But it’s important to remember that both of the aforementioned works were composed fairly late in Beethoven’s career, when his deafness had become a major issue. Most of the songs here recorded are from earlier in his life and, while demanding of the singer, they are more considerately written. Certainly John Mark Ainsley seems to take them all in his stride. The chosen songs suit well his easy, fluent delivery and throughout the programme his singing gives great pleasure. His voice often reminds me of Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, with whom I believe he once studied. The tone is naturally sweet, the timbre essentially light, but there’s a touch of steel in reserve when needed - indeed, arguably Ainsley has marginally more of that latter quality than Rolfe-Johnson.

I don’t believe all the songs in his programme are masterpieces but one - or, rather, one collection - emphatically belongs in that category. Beethoven’s songs may not be the foremost part of his œuvre but, true to form, the master innovator contributed something new to this genre, as he did to others, writing the first true song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. Ainsley ends his programme with this short, continuous cycle and he does it very well. In some parts of the cycle, not least the first song, ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz’ ich spähend’, Beethoven comes very close to Schubert’s world and Ainsley is excellent in such wistful, lyrical stretches. But he seems to me to catch the various moods of all the songs successfully. He’s at his most expressive in the sixth and final song, ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder’ where Beethoven brings the cycle back full circle and his ringing tone at the culminating declaration is admirable. Signum’s presentation of this recital is excellent but I wish they’d tracked each of the constituent songs in this cycle separately, especially as Susan Youens discusses each one individually.

Elsewhere, I much enjoyed Ainsley’s account of Beethoven’s most celebrated single song, Adelaide. His voice is just right for the yearning, ardent tone of this mini-cantata and he copes very well with the operatic dimensions of the music that Beethoven provides for the last stanza. Incidentally, there’s a poignant little point in the notes. A performance of this song in January 1815 was Beethoven’s last public performance as a pianist.

Several of the songs were new to me. The title of Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel is somewhat deceptive. This offers no gentle eventide musings. Instead it’s a powerful secular evening hymn. Another deceptive title is La Tiranna, which is not in Italian but in English. Unfortunately this exposes to English-speaking listeners the embarrassingly fulsome nature of the text. Quite frankly, I don’t think the music represents Beethoven at his most inspired either so, apart from the novelty of hearing an original Beethoven English setting, this one is for completists only.

It’s interesting to be able to compare the two settings of An die Hoffnung, though I think the decision to separate them in the recital was a sound one. Beethoven first set the words by the poet Christoph August Tiedge in 1805. Six years later he met the poet and, subsequently, he asked the poet for a new copy of the text. When it arrived he discovered that the lines he had set were prefaced by another five, and this led him, in due course, to make a completely different setting, incorporating the additional lines. The two settings are as chalk is to cheese. The earlier one is a fine and deeply felt strophic setting but in 1816 Beethoven plumbed much greater depths. The opening of the 1816 setting - the five additional lines - strikes a philosophical stance in both the vocal line and the piano part. The second setting is much longer than its predecessor and much more expansive. It’s an earnest, striving song and it’s through composed. Though Beethoven attains a higher degree of eloquence in his writing on this occasion I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the simpler, more direct style of the earlier effort to its careworn successor, even if the later music is much more advanced. Ainsley and Burnside do both settings very well.

I’ve mentioned Ainsley’s singing several times but I have failed to comment on the contribution of Iain Burnside. As you might expect from Beethoven, his piano parts are far from “mere” accompaniments. The piano is a significant protagonist in most of these songs and Burnside rises to the challenges they pose extremely well. One feels his is a true partnership with Ainsley and I found their collaboration as satisfying as their individual contributions.

Beethoven’s songs may not be amongst his highest ranked compositions in terms of public esteem but they are far from negligible compositions and they are well worth hearing, especially in committed, sensitive performances such as these. Excellent sound and booklet notes complete the attractions of this welcome disc.

John Quinn  

 


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