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Songs to the Moon
The Myrthen Ensemble (Mary Bevan – soprano; Clara Mouriz – mezzo soprano; Alan Clayton – tenor; Marcus Farnsworth – baritone; Joseph Middleton – piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 17-20 May 2015
Booklet in English only, with texts and translations
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD443 [38:00 + 42:47]

Except for the opening Peter Warlock piece, this recording of nocturnally-themed songs by the Myrthen Ensemble is divided into ‘halves’, the first of German romanticism, represented by Schumann and Brahms, and the second comprising composers of other nationalities, covering late romantic, impressionist and more recent periods. This division is emphasised by each half being allocated to a separate CD when, based on the programme’s total duration, it could all have occupied a single CD - an artistic decision, perhaps, to encourage an interval break.

The Myrthen Ensemble are UK-based and possibly atypical as a vocal group in that the accompanist is included in their number. All singing members have prominent individual careers spanning opera, oratorio and solo performance, and pianist Joseph Middleton is apparently much sought after in his speciality. ‘Myrthen’ (myrtles) is taken from the song-cycle that Schumann wrote as a wedding gift for his wife Clara, and the group’s raison d'être, according to the liner notes, is to explore the chamber-music element of art-song. They have recently formed and this is their debut CD. All the voices strike me as on the lighter side of their designated vocal range, perhaps not surprising for this early stage in their careers.

It also strikes me that the success of this collection is likewise split two ways, not so much from the quality of the performances, but from the comparisons they beg. In the Brahms and Schumann lieder, the Myrthen Ensemble are in formidable company, not least the Mathis, Fassbaender, Schreier and Fischer-Dieskau recordings of the Brahms quartets. While most are currently out of print, the three Op. 64 quartets, of which the Myrthen Ensemble perform the second, are still available on a DG twofer. The same artists and those of similar stature populate the catalogue for the solo and duet works, which in the case of Schumann includes the Hyperion Graham Johnson Lieder Edition. The Myrthen Ensemble’s public outings to date have been very well received, and I’m not surprised – the fare they present here would make a first-class concert, and send me home very happy - but this is a commercial recording, and I must take a wider view. In the lieder, they simply do not have the individual or collective richness of tone to compete with the best. An additional, and perhaps more personal, reservation that I have concerns their German diction, which sounds a little too studied and over-etched. It comes across almost as compensation for the tonal deficit, and a sense of singing from the head rather than the heart.

The remainder of the programme, to my ears, provides a much better fit to the Myrthen Ensemble’s aesthetic. These are art-songs that invite a wider range of interpretation and presentation, and not so bound by established ‘models’. I count myself among those not drawn to the Janet Baker style, particularly in French repertoire, and very much warmed to mezzo Clara Mouriz’s unaffected and delicately nuanced delivery, firstly of Mompou’s Damunt de tu només les flors, and then Hahn’s L’heure exquise. While in the latter she can’t quite match the glowing beauty of Susan Graham on Sony, it’s still a delectable performance. Using the same Paul Verlaine poem as Hahn, Massenet’s Rêvons, c'est l'heure brings possibly the highlight of the album, with Mouriz and Marcus Farnsworth conjuring a mood of exquisite stillness and repose, sustained by Joseph Middleton’s ethereal pianism. Alan Clayton’s lyrical and mellifluous tenor solos also captivate - lovely highs - in Warlock’s The Night and the Claire de lune confections of Szulc and Fauré. I wasn’t familiar with the Szulc, but now I’m glad I am. The two ‘outliers’ in the programme are Samuel Barber’s Nocturne and Elizabeth Maconchy’s Sun, Moon and Stars; Barber, himself a baritone, would surely have approved of Farnsworth’s timbre as ideal for this reflective song, and likewise Maconchy of Mary Bevan’s radiant purity and power in her evocative piece. Bevan teams with Mouriz for a rousing finale of Fauré’s Tarentelle, which I’m encouraged to say easily trumps Elly Ameling (times two!) with Dalton Baldwin on Brilliant. The Signum recording from Potton Hall in Suffolk is warm, clear and naturally balanced, with piano and voices in fine harmony.

On balance, then, the Myrthen Ensemble’s debut album gets a qualified thumbs-up from me. It’s not so much that the successes outweigh the failures, or there is any variability in performance, but rather some of the programme choices are perhaps not ideal for their ‘age and stage’. By recording core repertoire such as Brahms and Schumann lieder, they certainly piqued my most critical comparative urges, as I suspect they will for others. There is much to relish, though, and for those, like me, who love art-song as much as the Myrthen Ensemble do, you know even better is to come.

Des Hutchinson

Track Details
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
1. The Night [2:11]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
2. Nächtens, Op. 112 No. 2 [1:45]
3. Vor der Tür, Op. 28 No. 2 [1:58]
4. Unbewegte laue Luft, Op. 57 No. 8 [4:07]
5. Der Gang zum Liebchen, Op. 31 No. 3 [3:14]
6. Walpurgisnacht, Op. 75 No. 4 [1:32]
7. Ständchen, Op. 106 No. 2 [1:43]
8. Der Abend, Op. 64 No. 2 [3:51]
9. Vergebliches Ständchen, Op. 84 No. 4 [1:43]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
10. Unterm Fenster, Op. 34 No. 3 [1:26]
11. Mondnacht, Op. 39 No. 5 [4:07]
12-13. Zwei Venetianische Lieder, Op. 25 [3:14]
14. Die Lotosblume, Op. 25 No. 7 [1:49]
15. In der Nacht, Op. 74 No. 4 [5:20]

Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
1. Nocturne, Op. 13 No. 4 [3:32]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
2. Sun, Moon and Stars [3:51]
Joseph SZULC (1875-1956)
3. Claire de lune, Op. 83 No. 1 [3:25]
Federico MOMPOU (1893-1987)
4. Damunt de tu només les flors [4:22]
Camille SAINT- SAËNS (1835-1921)
5. Guitares et mandolins [1:49]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
6. Apparition [3:48]
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
7. La nuit, Op. 11 No. 1 [2:47]
Reynaldo HAHN (1874-1947)
8. L’heure exquise [2:51]
Henri DUPARC (1848-1933)
9. La fuite [3:15]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
10. Rêvons, c'est l'heure [5:04]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
11. Claire de lune, Op. 46 No. 2 [2:56]
12. Pleurs d’or, Op. 72 [2:47]
13. Tarentelle, Op. 10 No. 2 [2:17]



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