Folk Song Arrangements by Ludwig van BEETHOVEN ((1770-1827), Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809) and Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
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Edith Mathis (soprano); Julia Hamari (mezzo); Alexander Young (tenor); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); RIAS Kammerchor; Andreas Roehn, Helmut Heller (violins); Georg Donderer, Irmgard Poppen (cellos); Aurèle Nicolet (flute); Karl Engel (piano); rec. Berlin, February 1961, March 1970. ADD
AUSTRALIAN ELOQUENCE 4800385 [58:22 + 64:17]
A fascination with all things Scottish dates from before Sir Walter Scott’s wholesale invention of much of the genre. Purcell’s Theatre Music includes several examples of imitation Scottish Tunes and Songs and in the second half of the eighteenth century composers of all nationalities turned out songs and instrumental pieces in large numbers in a similar vein. The pieces on these discs are however not newly invented tunes in the Scottish style but genuine Scottish and other folk tunes arranged by three great masters, none of whom, as far as I am aware, ever visited Scotland. The figure behind this was George Thomson (or Thompson according to the booklet with these discs), an Edinburgh civil servant and publisher, who commissioned them along with new words by such poets as Robert Burns, James Hogg and (of course) Walter Scott. Curiously he never brought the words and music together before publication, so that as far as I am aware Beethoven and the others arranged the music without knowing what the words were about - although given the dialect often adopted they might have had difficulties even if they had been supplied. Not surprisingly this does lead to some odd mixtures which can cause difficulties for singers who must decide whether to follow the words or the music where the two diverge in character. Eloquence make this less obvious here by omitting not only the texts but any clue as to what the words are about, leaving the listener in the same position as the composers were in. It is possible to catch some of the words, but dialect poems in what is not the first language of most of the singers involved here do mean that the listener frequently is able to grasp little more than the gist of the text.
The result however is still well worth hearing. Given the talents involved it would be surprising if it was otherwise, although critics used regularly to refer to these songs in very dismissive terms. Admittedly not all of Beethoven’s lesser works are masterpieces, and some are best left in relative obscurity, but surely many of these arrangements are amongst the most imaginative responses to folk music before Bartók or Britten. They are not idiomatic in their use of the tunes but they do show the way in which Beethoven was able to react to what must have seemed to him exotic turns of phrase and unlikely rhythms. Bearing in mind that they date from the composer’s maturity the sheer range and imagination which he shows in this task are unsurprising.
Fortunately in recent years they have at last been given the recognition they deserve, and several complete recordings of the whole series – nearly 180 songs – have been made. Most of the recordings on these discs date from 1970, the three hundredth anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, at which time few had been recorded. DGG employed a starry set of singers - Edith Mathis, Julia Hamari, Alexander Young and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – and offered the kind of presentation necessary for such material. The present reissue lacks that presentation but does add earlier recordings by Fischer-Dieskau of songs arranged by Haydn and Weber as well as Beethoven. Although some of the latter duplicate those chosen in 1970 the earlier versions are sung in German. The differences in performance and in the versions of the works themselves are minor.
I am sure that none of these composers would have expected anyone to listen to more than a few of these songs at a time. It is indeed inadvisable to do so as certain mannerisms and tricks in the arrangements and the performances become very noticeable. Better to savour half a dozen and stop, wanting more, as you will given performances which combine exuberance, elegance and beauty of tone as required. Maybe at times Fischer-Dieskau does work rather too hard for this listener’s comfort so that you might even describe it as hectoring, but I am more than willing to ignore this given his wonderful ability to characterize each song individually. The contributions of the other soloists and choir are no less admirable, and the variety of voices in itself adds much to the listener’s pleasure.
The German versions of the Beethoven arrangements and the arrangements by Haydn and Weber are all sung just by Fischer-Dieskau although Karl Engel continues valiantly and imaginatively with the frequently busy piano parts. His ability to point Beethoven’s varied rhythms and phrasing gives immense pleasure. The other instrumentalists also contribute with great panache and, where required, beauty of tone. I have to admit to finding the Haydn arrangements at times dull in this company, but those by Weber have a quirky charm that distinguishes them from the frequently more muscular versions by Beethoven.
Between them these discs contain forty-six songs and over two hours of delightful and often neglected music. Taken a few at a time I find that they lift the spirits and open the ears delightfully. Certainly this is not the greatest music of any of these composers, but in performances like these it is well worth hearing and bringing hours of pleasure.

John Sheppard
Performances like these are well worth hearing and bring hours of pleasure. … see Full Review
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