Over the last couple of years I have reviewed a number
of mixed song recital discs with some Chopin songs included. It
was only a matter of time before a company would issue a disc
of the complete Op. 74 songs. They were published posthumously
by the composer’s friend Julius Fontana. Never intended to be
published as a group – maybe not at all – they were composed during
a period of eighteen years. They date between 1829, when Chopin
was still a teenager, and 1847, two years before his death, ‘when
the separation between him and George Sand was in the offing’.
In other words they cover the greater part of his creative life.
Chopin’s aim with the songs was never to challenge great predecessors
and contemporaries like Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann, but
rather to offer entertainment for the salons of Paris where exile-Poles
met and could be nostalgic. The poems were written by members
of the circle around Adam Mickiewicz, living in Paris and good
friends with Chopin.
The songs are melodious and charming and in many of them one hears typically Chopinesque turns of phrase, not least in the piano part. On the present disc they are sung in German translations, which possibly robs them of some of the authenticity, but this is the only objection I have – and it’s a marginal one. The advantage is that it brings them closer to the Central European tradition. Most, if not all, translations are by Max Kalbeck, a towering figure during the later part of the 19th
century, as writer, translator and critic.
The songs are sung here by the superb Konrad Jarnot, whose Ravel/Duparc disc some years ago is a great favourite (see review
). He is if possible even better here with singing that is nuanced, flexible and extremely sensitive. Moreover the beauty of the voice, especially in the soft and intimate songs, is truly beguiling. The first two songs had me sitting on the edge of my seat and my first reaction was that the songs sounded new. His artistry made them seem better than they actually are. But the more powerful songs are also excellent. Try the drinking song Hulanka
(tr. 4). This is down-to-earth and frothy singing with irresistible lilt, gloriously backed up by the admirable Eugène Mursky’s bouncy playing. And still everything is done with elegance and nuance. The humorous and lively Mein Geliebte
(tr. 8) is sung with a glint in the eye, almost visible through the loudspeakers. Throughout he sings with the same feeling for verbal nuance that was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s hallmark. Power, beauty, elegance are keywords for his readings. Maybe the real highlight here is Melancholie
(tr. 13) – wonderful singing of a wonderful song.
There are booklet notes in German and English but no sung texts, which is regrettable. Jarnot’s enunciation can’t be faulted but those who are less than fluent in German will need some textual support.
Lieder singing of this calibre can’t be taken for granted these days, even though we have many excellent singers around. Those who still look down on Chopin’s songs – and I have to admit that hitherto I haven’t held them in too high esteem – should give this disc a listen. I’m sure that they will be converted – just as I was.