Where Corals Lie
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sea Pictures [22:15]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Rückert Lieder [17:39]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Ruth Willemse (mezzo-soprano)
Vital Stavievitch (piano)
rec. 2018 at Studio Drenthe, The Netherlands
Sung texts but no translations enclosed
ET’CETERA KTC1639 [60:01]
Dutch mezzo-soprano Ruth Willemse studied at the Conservatory of Amsterdam and graduated at the Prince Claus Conservatory in June 2013. She has primarily performed as recitalist and concert singer but has also appeared in opera, and in the future she will take on more opera roles in the high mezzo Fach, due to her strong upper register. That she has the dramatic capacity is amply demonstrated in The Swimmer, the concluding song in Elgar’s Sea Pictures. All three groups of songs on the present disc are commonly heard with orchestral accompaniment, but Elgar himself often performed Sea Pictures with piano, of the five Wesendonck songs only one was orchestrated by the composer, and Mahler made versions for both piano and orchestra of the Rückert songs, except Liebst du um Schönheit, which was orchestrated after the composer’s death by Max Puttmann. So there is every reason to perform the songs with piano.
The opening song of Sea Pictures, Sea Slumber Song immediately reveals a beautiful voice with great warmth, good diction and good sense for nuances. The pianist is good. In Haven is sung with restraint, perhaps somewhat under-characterised. She builds up Sabbath Morning at Sea towards a climax in the last stanza, where He shall assist me to look higher is deeply felt and heart-warming. Where Corals Lie has always been my favourite among these five songs, and it seems to be Ruth Willemse’s as well, since it is the title of the disc. She also sings it gloriously. It is up to the pianist to build up the tension of the sea in The Swimmer – a song that cries out for orchestral treatment – and Vital Stahievitch delivers promptly. And Ms Willemse has the power to follow him, making this a monumental conclusion to one of the most consummate song cycles there is – in spite of the sprawling mix of poets.
Elgar and Mahler were near-contemporaries, Elgar only three years older, but stylistically they were worlds apart. The Rückert songs do not constitute a cycle in a narrow sense, since all five songs are independent of each other, though connected through the poet and common themes. However they are often performed together, but the order differs greatly from interpreter to interpreter. Ruth Willemse begins with Liebst du um Schönheit, which is the last composed of the five – a good year after the other four. It was his present to young Alma Schindler, whom he had met less than a year earlier and proposed marriage to her. But on one condition: that she cease composing. In her diary Alma wrote that he didn’t value her music highly – and that she felt the same about his. Towards the end of his too short life, Mahler changed his opinion and helped her publishing some of her songs. One can wonder what Alma felt when she found Liebst du um Schönheit, hidden in one of her books. It is indeed one of his loveliest. And Ruth Willemse sings it with great warmth – as she does the other four as well. Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is another of my great favourite songs, which I first got to know through Kathleen Ferrier’s recording but really fell in love with when I got Janet Baker’s legendary recording with Barbirolli. No other reading has ever been able to challenge Baker, not even Ruth Willemse, basically because the piano accompaniment, however sensitively it is played here, can’t match the orchestra. But I definitely found that in the opening of the last stanza, Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel she finds the right inwardness, and she rounds off of the suite with deeply satisfying readings of Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft and Um Mitternacht.
The readings of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder are also warm-hearted and deeply felt. A light flicker in the voice during Im Treibhaus seems to reveal a personal insight in the poem. The end of the song is magical in its softness and the piano postlude confirms this. Schmerzen is on the other hand more strongly outgoing and Träume with its premonition of Tristan und Isolde is also deeply satisfying.
When it comes to evaluating which version is the prime recommendation of each ‘cycle’ I get in trouble. All three have been recorded innumerable times – I have not heard more than a fraction of them – and I gladly return to them in whatever version, piano or orchestra. The more I listen to them the more I realise that it is impossible to pick an outright winner. If I say that my preferred versions of these three ‘cycles’ (orchestral versions that is) are Janet Baker with Barbirolli (Elgar and Mahler) and Regine Crespin with Prêtre (Wagner) that only implies that they were early acquisitions and very often played. But dozens of later – and sometimes earlier – recordings have delighted me and though I sooner or later come back to my first loves, I revisit with pleasure many of my later finds – and enjoy them enormously as well. What I can say in this specific case is that I
will, well recorded and with excellent liner notes.