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Decades: A Century of Song - Volume 3: 1830-1840.
John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Lorna Anderson (soprano), Alexey Gusev (baritone), Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano), Soraya Mafi (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. 2015/17, All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
Texts and English translations included
VIVAT 116 [69:05]

Decades is a projected series of discs, each one of which will include a selection of art songs composed during a ten-year span. The project, curated by Malcolm Martineau, will cover the century from 1810 to 1910. I’ve already enjoyed Volume 1, which spanned 1810-1820 (review) and Volume 2 which covered the period 1820-1830 (review).

Now the series reaches the 1830s. At the start of her expert booklet essay, Susan Youens points out that this particular decade was one of momentous and turbulent events in Europe, both politically and culturally. She also takes issue with any suggestion that “nothing happened in the world of song between the death of Franz Schubert in 1828 and the outburst of song from Robert Schumann in 1840.” I must confess that to some extent I have subscribed to that “nothing happened” view – or at least that nothing truly significant happened in that period. I wondered if the contents of this album will prove me wrong.

We begin with three songs by Fanny Mendelssohn. Susan Youens argues strongly that it is grossly unfair to suggest that Fanny’s music was “a pale clone” of the music of her illustrious brother, Felix. These three songs more than support her case, especially Die Mainacht. This is a tender, beautifully wrought setting of a poem by Ludwig Hölty. The words are borne along on lovely, long lines of melody. It’s sung by the young British soprano, Soraya Mafi. I don’t believe I’ve heard her before but I was captivated by her gorgeous delivery of the song. I’ve played this track several times now and each time with great pleasure. Miss Mafi is equally successful in the other two songs. Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass is a fine setting of Heine and Wanderlied is an eager-sounding song with a vivacious piano part.

Franz Lachner was a friend of Schubert and the songs that are presented here by John Mark Ainsley show the influence of Schubert, though they are not by any means mere imitations. These songs come from Lachner’s cycle, Sängerfahrt (Minstrel’s Journey). Das Fischermädchen, a setting of a text also chosen by Schubert, is a fluent song which Ainsley sings very well. Ihr Bildnis takes a Heine setting. Lachner’s musical response to the text isn’t in the same class as Schubert’s song to the same words but Lachner’s is a good song in its own right and Ainsley makes a very strong case for it.

The four songs by Felix Mendelssohn are entrusted to Angelika Kirchschlager. I don’t think I’ve heard her for a while but I was glad to reacquaint myself with her artistry. She offers two songs with the same title, Frühlingslied. The first sets a poem by Karl Klingmann (1798-1862). Mendelssohn’s music is full of the joy and energy of Spring. The second song takes words by Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850). This song, too, is full of the optimism of new beginnings that Spring brings. The lengthiest of the Mendelssohn group is Pagenlied (The Page’s Song). This is a narrative song and here Kirchschlager gives a most involving performance, telling the story and drawing the listener in.

There follow two songs by Meyerbeer. Frankly, these don’t do a lot for me, though that’s no reflection on Lorna Anderson, who sings them. Others may respond more positively than me in which case they’ll find the songs in good hands. Fortunately, Miss Anderson is also given a song which I like much more, Je crois en vous by Berlioz. This is an ardently romantic song and Berlioz later recycled the melody into his opera Benvenuto Cellini. Lorna Anderson sings it most expressively.

The Berlioz number bisects the group of four Russian songs. I freely confess that early nineteenth-century Russian art song has been, until now, a completely closed book to me and, indeed, of the composers featured here Alexander Dargomyzhsky is the only one of whom I’ve previously heard, chiefly for his opera The Stone Guest. I enjoyed this Russian group and the principal reason is because they feature the Russian singer, Alexey Gusev whose voice was new to me. He is simply outstanding. He’s listed by Vivat as a bass but I’m sure that’s a mistake. He’s most definitely a baritone and I’ve subsequently looked at his website where he’s thus described. Gusev has a wonderfully clear, immaculately-focused voice. Both his tone and his diction are crystal clear and his top register is glorious to hear. Alexander Alyabyev’s Chto poyosh', krasa-devitsa (Why are you singing, O beautiful damsel?) strikes me as being somewhat of the salon but Gusev sings it ardently. Incidentally, it seemed to me that the start of each stanza contained a slight pre-echo of ‘A wandering minstrel I’. The music of Alexander Varlamov’s More is turbulent and storm-tossed at first before moving into calmer waters. Gusev is adept at portraying both aspects. I admired all four of his contributions and I’m delighted to read that he will return in Volume 4 of this series.

The final six songs are all by Carl Loewe; Angelika Kirchschlager sings them all. First, she offers four songs from Loewe’s Frauenliebe und -leben. Frankly, these songs don’t begin to rival the mastery of Schumann’s take on the same texts; I don’t hear the same level of emotional expressiveness, nor a comparable degree of originality. Nonetheless, these are good songs and they’re well worth hearing. In particular, the first three in Miss Kirchschlager’s selection convey the eager rapture of a young woman in love. Angelika Kirchschlager finishes with two ballads but these are ballads from the animal kingdom. Der verliebte Maikäfer (The cockchafer) tells of the pursuit of a fly by an amorous beetle. It’s a charming and entertaining song which Miss Kirchschlager sings extremely well. She displays a fine narrative gift here and I found her performance very engaging. Her account of Der Kuckuck und die Nachtigall – a text later set by Mahler - is no less enjoyable.

This is an excellent compendium of songs, a good few of which may well be new to other collectors, as they were to me. All the singers prove well suited to their assignments and without exception I enjoyed hearing their contributions. Malcolm Martineau is, as ever, a skilled and perceptive partner to his soloists. The recorded sound is very good with the singers convincingly balanced with the piano. Though the sessions took place on a variety of dates, albeit in the same venue, the quality of the sound is very consistent. The documentation is very good, as it has been in previous volumes, although I continue to find the typeface is a bit too small for comfortable reading. All the texts are provided and Susan Youens’ notes, which are provided in English, French and German, offer a fine introduction to and context for these songs.

To return to the question I posed at the start of this review, I think this varied and discerningly chosen selection of songs does indeed prove that the 1830s was not a decade in which “nothing happened in the world of song”. I look forward keenly to the next volume which will cover the 1840s and in which we’re promised music from France, Germany, Russia, Scandinavia and Spain.

John Quinn
Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)
Die Mainacht (1836)
Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass, Op. 1 No. 3 (1837)
Wanderlied Op. 1 No. 2 (1837)
Franz Lachner (1803-1890)
Three songs from Sängerfahrt, Op. 33 (1831-32)
Das Fischermädchen,
Die Bergstimme
Ihr Bildnis
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Frühlingslied 'Es brechen im schallenden Reigen', Op. 34 No. 3 (1832)
Frühlingslied 'Durch den Wald, den dunkeln', Op. 47 No. 3 (1839)
Das Waldschloss (1835)
Pagenlied (1832)
Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)
La fille de l'air (1837)
La folle de St Joseph (1837)
Alexander Alyabyev (1787-1851)
Chto poyosh', krasa-devitsa
Alexander Varlamov (1801-1848)
More (1839)
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Je crois en vous (1834)
Alexander Alyabyev
Ya vizhu obraz tvoy (1835)
Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1815-1869)
Svad'ba. Fantaziya (after 1835)
Carl Loewe (1796-1869)
Four songs from Frauenliebe und -leben, Op. 60 (1830)
Seit ich ihn gesehen
Ich kann's nicht fassen, nicht glauben,
Helft mir, ihr Schwestern
An meinem Herzen
Der verliebte Maikäfer, Op. 64 No. 1 (1837)
Der Kuckuck und die Nachtigall (1837)


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