Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Songs and Cantatas
The Wanderer, Hob. XXVIa:32 [3:53]; Piercing Eyes, Hob. XXVIa:35 [1:37]; The Spirit’s Song, Hob. XXV1a:41 [4:35]; Fidelity, Hob. XXVIa:30 [3:15]; O Tuneful Voice, Hob. XXVIa:42 [4:42]; Arianna a Naxos, cantata, Hob.XXVIb/2 (1789) [13:54]; A Pastoral Song, Hob, XXVIa:27 [3:16]; Recollection, Hob. XXVIa:26 [5:13]; The Battle of the Nile, HobXXV1b:4 (1800) [10:38]; She Never Told Her Love, Hob. XXVIa:34 [3:15]; The Lady’s Looking-Glass, Hob.31c:17 [2:19]
Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Marcia Hadjimarkos (fortepiano)
rec. Salle Charratmuse, Charrat, Switzerland, January 2009. DDD.
Texts included, but no translation of Arianna a Naxos.

I must confess to finding the repertoire here less enticing than on two recent BIS recordings featuring Emma Kirkby which have recently come my way: The Queen’s Music – Italian Duets and Trios (BIS-CD-1715) and music by Dowland and Purcell, Orpheus in England (BIS-CD-1725). That’s my only reservation, however, apart from the less than ideal acoustic on this Brilliant Classics CD – and some sloppy proof-reading which has resulted in Emma Kirkby’s name appearing as ‘Emma Kirky’ on the CD label. Offset those small blemishes against the ridiculously low asking price for such talented performances, however, and the purchase of this new recording becomes essential for all Kirkby fans, unless they are resolutely allergic to Haydn’s art-songs.

Let me get that personal reaction to the words of the songs out of the way first. I’m afraid that I’m no great lover of eighteenth-century poetry in any form and I find the poems of Anne Hunter, whom Haydn met during his time in England, particularly twee. The English text of The Creation is odd and stilted, but the fact that its sources are the Bible and Milton ultimately saves it and Emma Kirkby participates in Christopher Hogwood’s recording of that work on Decca Oiseau-Lyre.

It’s a shame, therefore, that the words on this new recording are so clearly enunciated and so well captured by the recording, something which otherwise I’d hail as a virtue. Haydn’s music compensates, though I’d be hard put to find evidence of the claim in the booklet that the music anticipates Schubert’s romantic manner. Just don’t ask me to define ‘romanticism’ in poetry or music: it means so many different things that A O Lovejoy long ago (1924) delivered a famous lecture On The Discrimination of Romanticisms (plural).

Arianna a Naxos is another matter. Written for Lord Nelson’s mistress, Emma Hamilton, and sung by her with, reportedly, a loud voice, it deserves an honourable place in the long line of musical settings of Ariadne’s lament at being abandoned by Theseus; it’s surprising that it has not been recorded more often. We are not told of the quality of Lady Hamilton’s voice, merely its volume, but it’s most unlikely to have been anywhere in the same league as Emma Kirkby’s on this recording. The CD is worth its modest price for this item alone.

It’s followed by the best known of these songs, ‘My mother bids me bind my hair’. Once again the singing and the quality of Haydn’s seemingly artless setting – the art that conceals art – are enough to overcome my dislike of this kind of ‘pastoral’. The 18th Century loved to include unnecessary adjectives: the stone on which the speaker sits has to be ‘mossy’, for no particular reason, but when Wordsworth tells us that Lucy was like ‘a violet ‘neath a mossy stone’, there is a reason for the epithet – the moss on the stone helps make the violet ‘half hidden from the eye’.

Cornelia Knight’s words for The Battle of the Nile, too, sometimes set the teeth on edge:

When, lo! From ocean’s trophied mansion come
The Sons of Neptune to pronounce their doom.

There’s that unnecessary adjective ‘trophied’, again. Thankfully, Haydn set only a selection. Emma Hamilton was again the chanteuse, creating ‘a grand effect’, according to the author’s memoirs. In this, the second-longest item on the CD, Haydn’s setting is again attractive and Emma Kirkby’s declamatory manner well suited to it. The keyboard part is much more than an accompaniment here and the quality of Marcia Hadjimarkos’s playing and her fortepiano, a copy of a late 18th-century Walter instrument, do it justice.

With the penultimate work, ‘She never told her love’, we are on safer poetic territory with Shakespeare; Haydn’s setting does the words full justice. So, too, does the performance. The Lady’s Looking Glass concludes the programme, again with stylish music and performances.

As for that unhelpful acoustic which I mentioned, the ear never fully adjusts, though it becomes less of a problem as the programme progresses. I’ve seen it referred to elsewhere as disarmingly intimate, which I think understates the problem.

I’m particularly pleased to see all the texts included in the booklet – by no means a given in this price-range – though it’s a shame that no translation was provided for the Italian text of the longest work here, the cantata Arianna a Naxos. Otherwise the notes are short but informative.

For all my reservations, I know that this recording will find many friends. Even if, like me, you find much of the poetry too twee, Haydn’s music and the performances amply compensate. Just don’t forget those two other recent recordings which Emma Kirkby has made for BIS.

Brian Wilson

Excellent value – you may not like the poetry but Haydn’s music and the performances amply compensate.