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Antonin DVOŘAK (1841-1904)
Love Songs (Písne milostmé) (8) for voice and piano, B. 160 (Op. 83) (revision of Cypresses, B. 11) [14:18]
Songs from the Dvur Králové Manuscript (Písne z Rukopisu Královédvoyského) (6), for voice and piano, B. 30 (Op. 7) [16:33]
Songs (4) for voice and piano (arr. from Cypresses, B. 11), B. 124 (Op. 2) [5:23]
Songs (5) for voice and piano (Kránohorská Songs), B. 23 [6:10]
Songs (4) for voice and piano , B. 157 (Op. 82) [4:16]
In Folk Tone (V národním tónu), song-cycle for voice and piano, B. 146 (Op. 73) [9:27]
Gypsy Melodies (7) (Zigeunermelodien) for voice and piano, B. 104 (Op. 55) [12:39]
Bernarda Fink (soprano)
Roger Vignoles (piano)
rec. 2003, Teldex Studio Berlin
Full texts and translations into English, French, German.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMG501824 [68:46]

Originally released in 2004 and now re-issued on hmGold, this all-Dvořak song recital offers over a third of his total of 93 songs. It cannot be said that Dvořak's songs, apart from a few favourites such as "Songs my mother taught me", have entered mainstream recital repertoire yet they have previously received recordings from eminent artists such as Sarah Walker and Anne Sofie von Otter - although the latter sang them in German. Argentinian mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink is of Slovenian blood, has lived and studied in Prague and speaks fluent Czech, hence we may be sure we are hearing an authentic performance. Her diction is admirably clear and the provision of full texts in four languages including the original is a great bonus, especially as most listeners will be unfamiliar with their content.

Nonetheless, I must issue one caveat coupled with a moan: the English versions might well have been "authorised by the composer" but I doubt whether his English was sufficiently fluent to register what a load of old tosh these Victorian renderings in faux-archaic "poetic" English are. The text is larded with anastrophe, including frequent subject verb inversions, and transferred epithets - orphaned adjectives - so we are treated to frequent usage of "thee" and "thou", "'tis", "'twas" and "'twere" and clumsy Middle English verbs such as "kisseth" and "drieth". At times the sense is so obscure that I gave up altogether and turned to the French or German to understand the import of the verse; here is a classically risible sample, being the last "Gypsy Song":

Cloudy heights of Tatra daring falcon haunteth
Lure him not from thence, for cage his spirit daunteth!
Roves the plain the wild colt, free as summer breezes
Broken, when his proud neck bit and bridle seizes.
Nature to a gypsy thou a boon ast granted!
Jaj! Thy glorious freedom's in his breast implanted.

Sheer gobbledygook; the French is infinitely more comprehensible. To cap it all, the English text is riddled with a dozen or more misprints like the 'ast' above.

None of this is the performers' fault and I suppose these were the out-of-copyright translations readily available - but they do the songs no favours.

Fink has one of the most beautiful and rich-toned mezzo-soprano voices on the circuit today: steady, precise and wholly even throughout its range with no technical weaknesses. A seasoned communicator, she never resorts to over-emphasis but conveys deep emotion via a minimum of artifice. There is never any posturing or archness in her delivery and she is admirably supported by the doyen of accompanists, Roger Vignoles, who first suggested that she should sing more Lieder. The accent here is upon restraint and refinement; Vignoles' dynamic shading and phrasing are as subtle as those of his singer.

These songs are suffused with folk rhythms and are also very short, generally only a minute or two. They range in duration from just one minute to a maximum of three and a half. Consequently, melodic phrases may be varied or repeated but there is no opportunity for the more strophic approach of Schubert or Schumann. The piano often imitates folk instruments such as a guitar or zither, bells, triangles or a harp, providing arpeggiated accompaniments to songs which veer between lively, upbeat dances and broadly lyrical laments.

Listeners like me habituated to German Lieder or indeed French melodies might take a few hearings to absorb and appreciate the style of these songs, simultaneously both more diffuse - in melodic content - and succinct - in narrative duration. Little is repeated and each song takes on the characteristics of miniature polished gem or vignette.

You will not find a fuller or better collection of these neglected songs, all the more desirable now that they have been re-issued, still with complete texts and notes, at a bargain price.

Ralph Moore


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