Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano)
Emmanuel Ceysson (harp)
Anneke Scott, Joseph Walters, Oliver Picon and Chris Larkin (horns)
Marie-Amélie Clément and Yann Dubost (double-basses)
Ensemble Pygmalion/Raphaël Pichon
rec. July 2015, Temple du Saint-Esprit, Paris
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902239 [74:31]
Raphaël Pichon (b.1984) founded the French choir and original instrument ensemble Pygmalion in 2006, since when he and they have clearly gone from strength to strength. They have made several acclaimed records of Baroque repertory, two of which, featuring music by Bach and Rameau, have been welcomed by MusicWeb International. However, they are plainly keen not to limit themselves to ‘early music’: the booklet accompanying the disc under review tells us that “this programme is the first part of what will be a trilogy devoted to the role of canon in German musical history. After the feminine expression of the Rhinemaidens will come a selection of music for male voices from the turn of the twentieth century, before a final programme of works for mixed voices by Strauss, Schoenberg and Webern”.
The unifying thread of this first instalment of the trilogy is, then, alongside its demonstration of the pervasiveness of canon form in German Romanticism, the idea of the Rhine and, particularly, of its ‘maidens’ – be they sirens, nymphs, sprites or whatever. There were many German composers, as the booklet goes on to remind us, who “drank at the well” of this tradition. And “it is this reality that Raphaël Pichon and his Ensemble Pygmalion have sought to illustrate by inviting us to follow the course of the Rhine in the company of his ‘maidens’. Drawing on the German imaginative heritage, they present a programme in a number of tableaux in which these great composers of German Romanticism are as it were intertwined on the thread of tradition, bearing the song of the Rhinemaidens in all its mystery and enchantment”.
This project clearly does not lack anything in imagination, creativity or indeed ambition. In essence what we have here is a sequence of twenty pieces by four greats of Austro-German Romanticism, several of which will be unfamiliar to the majority of listeners, and others of which are presented in strikingly innovative ways. The opening performance of the beginning of Das Rheingold in an arrangement for 24 women’s voices, harp, four horns and two double-basses is a case in point – and very effective it is. This is the only item in which the full complement of performers appears, though all bar three feature women’s voices, and two of the horn players and the harpist re-appear at regular intervals – the latter sometimes taking on an accompanying role that would otherwise be played by the piano. Bernarda Fink, regrettably, appears only once, in a performance of Schubert’s Ständchen which stands out not least for the intimate and mutually responsive relationship it reveals between her and her ‘backing’ singers.
All in all, I suspect this issue is likely to polarize opinion. Certainly there are aspects of it that are not difficult to dislike. My quotations from the booklet have perhaps already implied that there is about the project a faint whiff of pretentiousness, and also of fussiness – a feature which comes to the fore in certain of the arrangements, such as that of Heinrich Isaac’s Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen, which is here deprived, to me fatally, of its sublime simplicity. The link between several of the pieces and the Rhine, let alone its ‘maidens’, is also far from clear. One is several times tempted to ask questions such ‘what exactly is Isaac doing here?’, or ‘how on earth does Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23 end up in a disc devoted to sirens?’. Similarly, the division of the twenty-one tracks into six “tableaux” – in the booklet’s English translation The Daughters of Morpheus, Mermaids, Serenade, The Mourning Women, Love’s Grief is Monotonous and Rhinemaidens – does seem rather artificial, and forces several items into a mould that they don’t altogether fit. Quite what links the Rheingold prelude, Schumann’s Wiegenlied and an instrumental arrangement of Brahms’s Ich schwing mein Horn ins Jammertal (written originally for a male choir), for example, really isn’t clear. By contrast, the only one of the six tableaux whose items have a clear thematic as well as musical link works very well. I am thinking here of The Mourning Women, which presents Schubert’s canon Lacrimosa son’ io, Schumann’s romance Die Capelle, and what amounts to two funeral marches: Schubert’s Scott setting Coronach and Siegfried’s Trauermarsch from Götterdämmerung.
Rather than the rather tighter programmatic coherence one might have wished for, much of the disc has, instead, a consistency of tone which can at time gives rise to a certain sense of monotony. Inevitably, perhaps, given the nature of the repertory, a good deal of the music is slow, gentle, sometimes seductive, sometimes verging on the saccharine. The horns do their best do inject an element of drama and excitement to the proceedings; but their interventions are too infrequent to redress the balance.
For reasons such as these, then, some listeners will probably resist this disc’s charms. To do that would be a shame, though, since it also has plenty of plus points. For one thing, if you can forget, or at least relegate to the back of your mind, the conceit of the Rhine and its maidens, you may well find that, as a potted history of the use of canon form by German romantics, the disc works very well. It had never occurred to me before, for example, how much of Wagner’s music for the Rhinemaidens is essentially a series of canons, or how deeply the music, especially Schubert’s, is shot through with the device.
The disc’s concentration on the canon is no doubt also the reason why we encounter several delightful rarities. I can’t remember the last time, for example, I heard any of Brahms’s Thirteen Canons, Op.113, or indeed Schubert’s Lacrimosa – which emerges here as a mini-masterpiece of the first order. As, for that matter, do Schumann’s Meerfey and In Meeres Mitten, settings of poems by Eichendorff and Rückert respectively, which are dark and disturbing, but also exquisitely crafted and very moving. Moreover, the performances themselves are of high quality: the instrumentalists are beyond reproach, Fink is good, and Pygmalion’s female singers are in most respects exemplary, particularly in the matter of intonation. I do wish their words were clearer; but I suppose that even this feature, combined with the resonant acoustic of the ecclesiastical recording venue, could help the disc to cast a seductively atmospheric spell which, for some listeners, would outweigh any sense of monotony or reservations about details.
In the end, then, this probably is a Marmite disc. If you are the kind of listener who can buy in wholeheartedly to the disc’s concept, trust it and allow its many beauties to waft over you – and at times also stimulate your mind –, you will probably love it. If, though, your tendency is to analyse, to ask uncomfortable questions and worry about issues of coherence and structure, you might well end up frustrated and confused. Unfortunately, though, you might also be the poorer for having missed out on some rare and high-quality choral pieces that you might otherwise not get to hear.
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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Prelude to Das Rheingold (arranged for 24 women’s voices, harp, 4 horns and 2 double-basses) [4:00]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Wiegenlied, Op. 78/4 (arranged for women’s voices and harp by Vincent Manac’h) [2:39]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Ich schwing mein Horn ins Jammertal, Op. 41/1 (for 4 horns) [1:38]
Robert SCHUMANN Meerfey, Op.69/5 (for women’s voices) [3:28]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Psalm 23 (‘Gott ist mein Hirte’), D.706 (for women’s voices and harp) [4:41]
Robert SCHUMANN In Meeres Mitten, Op.69/6 (for women’s voices) [3:34]
Richard WAGNER Siegfried’s horn call from Siegfried (for solo horn) [1:53]; Johannes BRAHMS Wille, wille will der Mann ist kommen!, Op. 113/5 (for women’s voices) [0:59]
Franz SCHUBERT Ständchen, D.920 (for mezzo-soprano, women’s voices and harp) [4:36]
Franz SCHUBERT Lacrimosa son’ io (Canon for 3 voices), D.131b [4:20]
Robert SCHUMANN Die Capelle (Romance), Op. 69/6 [2:49]
Franz SCHUBERT Coronach, D.836 (for women’s voices, 2 horns and harp) [6:00]; Richard WAGNER Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung (arranged for 4 horns by James Wilcox) [6:00]
Einförmig ist der Liebe Gram
Heinrich ISAAC (c.1450-1517) Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen (arranged by Vincent Manac'h) [2:11]
Johannes BRAHMS Grausam erweiset sich Amor an mir, Op.113/2 (for women’s voices) [1:35]
Johannes BRAHMS Einförmig ist der Liebe Gram, Op.113/13 (for women’s voices) [3:20]
Richard WAGNER The Rhinemaidens from Götterdämmerung (arranged for women’s voices, 2 horns and harp by Vincent Manac’h) [6:06]
Johannes BRAHMS Vier Gesänge, Op. 17 (for women’s voices, 2 horns and harp) [14:31]