Carl Michael BELLMAN (1740 – 1795) Songs
1. Epistle 2: So screw up the Fiddle [2:02]
2. Epistle 71: Ulla, my Ulla, what sayest to my offer [4:09]
3. Song 31: Up Amaryllis! Sweetheart, good morning [2:28]
4. Epistle 82: Come now, ourselves reposing [5:43]
5. Song 56: When I’m sitting with my glass [1:52]
6. Song 16: Am I born, then I’ll be living [1:25]
7. Cradle Song: Sleep, sweet tiny Carl in peace [2:15]
8. Song 64: O’er the misty park of Haga [2:45]
9. Song 14: If 6000 Dalers they gave me [3:07]
10. Epistle 52: Movitz we are forsaken [3:16]
11. Epistle 80: As festive a comely shepherdess [4:29]
12. Song 32: Come forth, O Lord of night [4:44]
13. Song 38: A Potiphar’s wife in her beauteous way [1:24]
14. Epistle 54: Never an Iris upon these pallid fields [5:12]
Martin Best (tenor, cyster, guitar)
rec. Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, 14-15 June 1982
NIMBUS NI 5174 [45:01]
Carl Michael Bellman was a towering presence in 18th century Swedish poetry. Many a scholar has maintained that if he had written in French, German or English he would have been a central author, irrespective of nationality. It should be noted, though, that his poetry was written to be sung, rather than just read, and his way of weaving words and music together was distinctive. Primarily he wrote his songs and epistles to be performed by himself. There are several written testimonies that he was a masterly performer, expressive and able to imitate sundry instruments. Conscientious research has revealed that few of his songs are original compositions; there is plenty of evidence that he borrowed melodies from instrumental works (Roman, Naumann’s Gustaf Wasa) and French opera-comique. There is even a quotation from the opening chorus in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But, great artist that he was, he changed, reworked and adjusted the melodic material to fit his texts. We encounter a very conscious artist in these songs and epistles.
His main oeuvre, published at the end of his life, was Fredman’s Epistles and Fredman’s Songs. Fredman was a failed clockmaker – as he appears in the gallery of characters in the songs and epistles. Before his wife’s death he was a highly respected clockmaker –responsible for the clocks at the Royal Court. I have seen one of his creations at the National Gallery in Stockholm – a true masterpiece. In the epistles he and his companions belong to the dropouts. It’s the life of those – often in taverns – that Bellman describes: many times with amazing realism – social realism is an apt word for it. This element is just as often elevated to a mythological world, where the atmospheric and colourful language reaches sublime heights. Naturally enough many songs are drinking songs (tr. 5, 6, 9), but there are bible parodies (tr. 13), erotic songs (tr. 11), songs of death (tr. 14) – a central motif in Bellman’s works – and marvellous descriptions of nature. Arguably the finest, at least the best known among Swedish people in general, is Song 64: O’er the misty park of Haga (tr. 8). Haga Castle, which is to become Crown Princess Victoria’s and her husband’s residence after the Royal Wedding on 19 June 2010, didn’t exist in Bellman’s time; it was built 1802 – 1805 for King Gustavus IV Adolph. The park itself was laid out 1780 – 1797. It was not finished before the deaths of Bellman and his patron Gustavus III. It seems that the melody for this song has not been traced to another source, so it may be by Bellman himself, and in that case it certainly adds to his artistic genius.
Martin Best, who made himself a reputation, not least in the medieval troubadour repertoire, was a frequent visitor to Sweden from the 1970s and became a household name in the country for many years. With his flexible voice and his masterly treatment of the guitar and the cyster, the latter a lute-like instrument that Bellman also played, he is a worthy transmitter of the Bellman tradition.
For many years Bellman’s music was performed in arrangements for male chorus and when I grew up in the 1950s the only recordings available were those by the great Danish tenor Aksel Schiøtz with piano accompaniments. They were good by traditional Lieder criteria but for the real thing – or the closest we could possibly get fifty years or more ago - one needed to turn to the slightly later readings on a Swedish Society LP with Folke Sällström and Roland Bengtsson on cyster. Sällström was a classically schooled baritone; today he seems a bit bloodless. Anders Börje, a popular singer, and even more Sven Bertil Taube, actor and troubadour, initiated a new era in Bellman interpretation around 1960 and Fred Åkerström during several decades invested the songs with a hitherto unheard earthbound realism that placed Bellman firmly in the consciousness of the bustling late 20th century. For me he is still the unsurpassed master of Bellman singing, though I am fully aware of that many listeners don’t share my affection for his rather burlesque interpretations.
Martin Best is no doubt closer to what Bellman must have sounded like - though not theatrical enough if the ear-witnesses’ are to be relied on. He is fresh and lively, his diction is excellent and his rhythmic acuity is striking. That he is a masterly instrumentalist, whether on the guitar or on the cyster, is beyond doubt. What is also striking is his swift tempos, which are not always an asset. Epistle 71 for instance seems a bit hard-driven but it is still executed with great feeling and intimacy, especially in the lyric middle section of the song. Heavy rubatos characterize Song 31, and not always to the good. He indulges in some tasteful embellishments in some of the slower songs. You can hear this aspect in Epistle 82, one of the most charming of Bellman’s idyllic songs, while some other songs, Songs 56 and 16, are too aggressive. One of the best readings here is the Cradle song (tr. 7), which is not included in either of the two published volumes. It is beautifully and sensitively performed a cappella – a true lullaby sung spontaneously to his little son.
The more idyllic songs seem best suited to Martin Best’s treatment. The aforementioned Song 64 about Haga is sung fluently with forward movement and tracks 10 – 12 are all beautifully done. Maybe the concluding elegy Never an Iris is the most beautiful of them all.
It has to be said that, even though Bellman’s highly personal poetry can never be transmitted to another language without losing some of its unique flavour, Paul Britten Austin and Tom Fletcher have done an outstanding job in making these marvellous texts available to non-Swedish listeners. Martin Best is the right person to make them come alive.
The recording is truthful, the artist in the traditional Nimbus manner, and even though I would ideally wish the texts to have been printed in the booklet – as it is we get some short summaries and in some cases musicological or historical references – Martin Best’s enunciation is so clear that most listeners will be able to catch the essence of the contents. It seems unlikely at the moment that we will be offered another issue with this repertoire, and though I naturally am biased towards this highly individual poet I would emphatically advise readers not yet familiar with Bellman to try him out. Martin Best is certainly as strong an advocate for him as it is possible to find.
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