Decades: A Century of Song -Volume 1: 1810-1820
Michael Schade (tenor); Lorna Anderson, Sylvia Schwartz (sopranos); Ann Murray (mezzo); Florian Boesch (bass); Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. 5-7 November, 2014; 22 and 24 May, 2015; 4 and 24 June, 2015, All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
Original texts and English translations included VIVAT 112 [78:33]
This is the first volume in a projected series of discs, each of which will cover a decade of songs composed in the 100-year span between 1810 and 1910. The intention is to create a comprehensive survey of song right through the nineteenth century. Each disc will feature a variety of singers and composers. If future volumes follow the pattern of this one then we’ll find composers whose songs are familiar – in this case Beethoven and Schubert – placed alongside composers whose songs are much less well known. Indeed, in that latter category it seems we may encounter composers whose entire œuvre is nowadays hidden in the shadows. For me the music of Joseph Fabry-Garat, Sophie Gail, Václav Tomášek and Giovanni Battista Viotti would certainly fall into that category.
The series is to be curated by Malcolm Martineau and it’s testimony to his stature in the world of art-song that he’s attracted singers of the calibre of Michael Schade, Dame Ann Murray and Florian Boesch to participate in this first instalment. In the next two volumes I understand that the artists we shall encounter will include Sarah Connolly, John Mark Ainsley, Christopher Maltman and Angelika Kirchschlager.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this first volume is dominated by Schubert: a group of his songs is placed at the beginning and end of the programme and most of these are in the hands of Michael Schade. In fact, he has the lion’s share of the programme as a whole. Schubert’s songs are almost always worth hearing, though some are less inspired than others, and the first group is a little mixed. Der Blumenbrief is charming but needs something made of it if it’s to make an impression. Fortunately, Schade and Malcolm Martineau are both experienced and highly intelligent musicians so the song is in good hands and does indeed make its mark. Die Sommernacht is unconventional. The poet mourns his lover and Schubert sets most of the text as recitative, only breaking into a lovely, poignant melody for the last three lines. Schade’s delivery is most expressive. An den Mond is a wonderful song and here Schade displays expert control of line in the slow outer verses. Two of the group are allotted to the Spanish soprano, Sylvia Schwartz, who I don’t think I’ve heard before. She sings Freude der Kinderjahre and Wiegenlied. Her voice is bright in tone – actually, a bit too bright for my taste. The songs don’t represent Schubert at his best, I think, but Miss Schwartz puts as much expression as she can into them. The timbre of Michael Schade’s voice engages my sympathy rather more and he does not disappoint in Das Heimweh or Seligkeit. He floats the vocal line most delicately in the former while his light timbre and nimble articulation are well suited to what Susan Youens rightly calls the “irresistible lilt” of the latter.
Then we encounter the first of the less familiar composers – or, in some cases, composers who are less familiar as composers of songs. Fernando Sor certainly falls into that latter category. Appropriately, since he was a Spaniard, the three songs by him are sung by his compatriot, Sylvia Schwartz. The songs are well suited to her bright tone and she sings them enthusiastically. Unfortunately, the songs themselves didn’t do a lot for me; once heard they were immediately forgotten. To be truthful, it seemed almost cruel to place these slight pieces between songs by Schubert and Beethoven, inevitably inviting comparisons.
Beethoven’s songs are not the most celebrated part of his output but there are some notable ones among them. I must say a wry smile crossed my face when I read in the notes his admission that he didn’t like writing songs and that “… with vocal compositions I must always be asking myself: can this be sung?” Those of us who have at any time battled with the chorus parts in either the Ninth Symphony of the Missa Solemnis might question whether he asked himself that question often enough. As it happens, the vocal lines in the songs included on this album are not among his most taxing. Schade does this set of three Goethe songs very well. The first is a serious offering while the other two have a lighter countenance.
In the notes the point is made that at this stage in the nineteenth century French art-song lagged considerably behind the development of the form in the Austro-German part of Europe and would continue so to do for some time to come. That’s all too starkly illustrated by the offerings from Joseph Dominique Fabry-Garat and Sophie Gail. The description in the booklet is “charming trifles, strophic settings of anonymous and somewhat vapid verse.” I’m afraid that’s all too accurate. Both songs are pretty but not at all memorable. Lorna Anderson sings them nicely but I wish she’d been given something more interesting to sing as well.
The Goethe songs by the Prague composer, Václav Tomášek are a different matter. These are fully in the Austro-German Lieder tradition and they’re rather good. Certainly they afford the singer far more opportunities for expressive singing. Tomášek seems to have been a devotee of Goethe – by 1820 when these present songs were written he’d composed forty-one songs using the great German poet’s lines. For me, Schäfers Klagelied is the pick of the bunch but Michael Schade and Malcolm Martineau do all four very well, investing each one with expressiveness and a thoughtful approach.
Viotti is best remembered as a virtuoso violinist and as a composer of no fewer than 29 concertos for his instrument. It appears that his small output of songs was composed for friends. It’s nice to hear Ann Murray again, however briefly, recorded some 18 months after what we thought was to be her last recording (review). These two songs are fairly slight - Privez l’amour de sa fleche cruelle seems to be over before it gets going – but Murray does them well. I like the gentle melancholy of Stanco di pascolar, a pretty song.
There’s a brief return to Beethoven and then we hear from Weber. I must admit I’m not au fait with his songs but Abschied vom Leben is impressive. It’s dramatic and expressive, especially as rendered by Schade. The composer’s operatic pedigree is put to good use here. Not all the unfamiliar songs in this collection can stand comparison with Schubert but this one can.
We return to Schubert. Again we are mainly in the hands of Michael Schade but the group begins with the solitary contribution from Florian Boesch. Das Grab was, apparently, originally composed for unison male voice choir. The music displays imagination and reach and some of the harmonies are very unexpected. Susan Youens refers to the “lugubrious grandeur” of the setting. Boesch captures this perfectly, singing with quiet, controlled intensity. What a shame this is the only item on the programme that he is allotted.
Schade then takes over for all but the last song on the programme. His gently plangent tone is just right for the poignant Erster Verlust. He’s also well suited to the simple, expressive An den Mond, which is beautifully done. With its melancholic melodic flow this song is echt-Schubert and it receives a graceful performance. Schade excels also in the eloquent Wanderers Nachtlied I. It’s left to Sylvia Schwartz to round off the proceedings with Wer kauft Liebesgötter. It’s another pretty, even pert song. Her bright delivery suits the piece but I’d like to hear her in something more slow and expressive and, frankly, something with a bit more emotional depth to see what she can do.
The lesser-known songs on this programme are variable in quality; the Weber and Tomášek pieces are the best in my view though some listeners may find more in some of the other unfamiliar pieces. Nonetheless, it’s valuable to have all these compositions in order to establish a wider context for European art-song than we may sometimes hear in recital or on disc. Malcolm Martineau has chosen both his singers and their repertoire shrewdly.
The performances have been well recorded. The sound is pleasing and natural with a good balance between singers and piano. That should come as no surprise since the engineering was in the experienced hands of David Hinitt who, on this occasion, acted as producer as well.
The documentation is comprehensive. Not only are all the texts provided but also there’s an extensive eleven–page essay by Susan Youens, who is to be the consultant for the series as a whole. My only complaint is that the booklet is set in a very small font and I found it a trial to read, sometimes resorting to a magnifying glass. That’s a shame because the essay itself is excellent.
On the evidence of this CD this will be an important and rewarding series.
I understand that it is planned to release the discs at four-monthly
intervals. The next volume will take us from 1820 to 1830. There will
be more from Schubert – naturally – and also offerings from
Loewe, Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Glinka.
Contents Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Der Blumenbrief, D622 [2:10] Die Sommernacht, D289 [2:46] Täglich zu singen, D533 [2:00] An den Mond, D193 [3:05] Freude der Kinderjahre, D455 [2:27] Wiegenlied, D304 [3:12] Das Heimweh, D456 [2:40] Seligkeit, D433 [1:56] Fernando SOR (1778-1839) De amor en las prisiones [1:30] Las mujeres y cuerdas [1:44] Mis descuidados ojos [1:58] Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Wonne der Wehmut, Op 83/1 [2:41] Sehnsucht, Op 83/2 [2:11] Mit einem gemalten Band, Op 83/3 [2:00] Joseph Dominique FABRY-GARAT (1774-?) Plainte ŕ Hortence [3:45] Sophie GAIL (1775-1819) Bolleros [2:16] Václav TOMÁŠEK (1774-1850) Songs from Gedichte von Goethe: Nähe des Geliebten [2:17] An die Entfernte [1:27] Schäfers Klagelied [3:49] Rastlose Liebe [0:55] Giovanni Battista VIOTTI (1755-1824) Stanco di pascolar, VW11:10 [1:34] Privez l’amour de sa fleche cruelle, VW11:4 [1:08] Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel, WoO 150 [4:45] Carl Maria von WEBER (1756-1826) Abschied vom Leben, Op 41, Heft 1, No 2 [4:24] Franz SCHUBERT Das Grab, D569 [2:59] Der Fischer, D225 [2:53] Erster Verlust, D226 [1:56] An den Mond, D259 [3:06] Wanderers Nachtlied I, D224, Op 4/3 [1:31] Rastlose Liebe, D136 [1:20] Ganymed, D554, Op 19/3 [3:59] Wer kauft Liebesgötter, D261 [1:47]