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Kobiety Muzyki: Pieśni (Women of Music: Songs)
Irène WIENIAWSKI (POLDOWSKI) (1879-1932)
L’heure exquise [2:15]
Berceuse d’armorique [4:27]
Cythere [1:08]
Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Warum willst du and’re fragen [3:05]
Der Wanderer [1:21]
Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage [2:02]
Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen [2:33]
Mein Stern [1:48]
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)
Mignonne [2:07]
Amoroso [2:26]
Sur la plage [2:46]
L’eté [3:43]
L’absente [2:57]
Agathe BACKER-GRØNDAHL (1847-1907)
4 Songs Op.65 [6:48]
Urszula Kryger (mezzosoprano)
Agata Górska-Kołodziejska (piano)
rec. 2017, Concert Hall of the Grażyna and Kiejstut Bacewicz Academy of Music, Łódź, Poland
DUX 1524 [39:28]

“There is no greater happiness than to compose, to create something really beautiful, to draw something from one’s own soul and send it into another’s …” So wrote the nineteenth-century Norwegian pianist and composer, Agathe Backer Grøndahl, to her son Fridtjof, himself a pianist.

The songs selected here by the mezzo-soprano Urszula Kryger and pianist Agata Górska-Kołodziejska serve as a portal into the ‘musical soul’, as it were, of four female composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries whom the Polish duo believe have suffered undue neglect. Dariusz Marciniszyn’s brief liner note (in Polish and English) explains that the 17 songs have been chosen to ‘allow the recipient to position the aforementioned works in the context of well-known pieces of the most representative 19th-century composers, commonly associated with vocal and instrumental lyrics’. This assumes the listener’s prior knowledge of the lieder repertory, and contemporary compositions. And, it’s not immediately clear why these specific songs have been chosen as ‘representative’. Moreover, I’m not sure that I would describe the songs of Clara Schumann or Cécile Chaminade as particularly ‘neglected’: they appear on recital and recording programmes fairly frequently, and even the chamber music of the former is gaining increasing renown.

That said, the performances here are sincere, thoughtful and direct, and make for engaging listening. Kryger has an appealing mezzo that acquires attractive richness at the bottom and sails cleanly at the top. Her breath control is unwavering. Occasionally, in the songs by Clara Schumann especially, I missed a little variety of colour, such as would convey a deeper response to the texts, but Kryger’s intonation is flawless. Górska-Kołodziejska is an attentive partner, alert to the poetic spirit and to the musical details. The balance is good, with the voice nicely prominent but the intricacies of the piano parts always clear and present.

Clara Schumann is represented by five songs, three of which are settings of Rückert (no texts or translations are provided, but poets are identified). Two of this trio might indeed provide the listener with an opportunity for some contextual comparison, since they were published in 1841 in a collection of Rückert settings, three by Clara and the rest from the pen of her husband, Robert. ‘Warum willst du and’re fragen’ is poised and tender, establishing a poignant tone in the piano’s introductory bars, by means of a subtle rubato and sensitively weighted appoggiaturas, which prepares for the poet-speaker’s sad but ardent expression of faithfulness. ‘Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen’ is fittingly turbulent, the piano figuration clean and precise, the bass line sure of direction and the vocal melody urgent. Just occasionally is there a shriller edge at the melodic peaks, here and in ‘Mein Stern’. In ‘Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage’, however, the duo capture the spirit of rapture which briefly flames within the two-minute miniature.

Of the five songs by Chaminade, ‘Mignonne’ allows us to appreciate the soft fullness of Kryger’s lower range, which conveys the poetic intensity of this lament for the transience of beauty. ‘Amoroso’ has a lovely luxuriousness, though in both these songs the piano’s low and rather dense bass line sometimes feels too heavy and loud; if the spread chords in ‘Sur la plage’ are similarly extravagant then here they seem more apt, expressing as they do the overwhelming melancholy of the waves which billow onto the shore as Kryger’s mezzo sinks to the quiet depths in unending woe. In contrast, she trips accurately through the sparkling exhortations to the songbird in ‘L’eté’, as Górska-Kołodziejska races nimbly up and down the keyboard, a blustery summer breeze.

The real interest of this disc, however, lies in the music which frames these songs by Schumann and Chaminade. The disc opens with three songs by Irène Régine Wieniawski – daughter of the composer-violinist Henryk Wieniawski and niece of the pianist, composer, and professor Jósef Wieniawski – who, writing under the pseudonym Poldowski, enjoyed success both in London and the US, as a composer and pianist. The vocal line of ‘L’heure exquise’, a setting of Verlaine, floats exquisitely, soaring cleanly at the top, the darker, twisting central section resolving into transcendent peace at the close. The combination of lyric beauty and fervour remind one of Fauré and Kryger responds to both the idiom and the textual imagery, finding darker and deeper hues in these songs, and singing with compelling commitment. Berceuse d’armorique’ sets a poem by the Breton folklorist Anatole le Braz from his collection Chanson de la Bretagne; it is sung with wistfulness, its gentle lilt blossoming briefly with suppressed feeling and then fading sombrely into quiet reflection. Wieniawski’s imaginative response to the stanzaic form is sensitively interpreted by both performers.

The recording closes where this review began, with the Norwegian pianist-composer Agathe Backer Grøndahl, who ignored the advice of her teacher, the composer Halfdan Kjerulf, that her undoubtedly musical talents would be best confined to the private sphere, and rose to become an important figure in 19th-century musical life in Norway. She was greatly admired by Grieg under whose baton she made her debut, playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in Oslo, at the age of twenty. George Bernard Shaw, who heard her perform during a tour to London and Birmingham in 1889-90, also praised her highly.

Each of the 4 Songs Op.65 is less than two minutes in length. Each demonstrates a command of the Romantic idiom, a confident musical voice and a melodic ease and naturalism which reminds one of Mendelssohn. ‘Barnesang’, to an anonymous text, has a lovely freshness and folk-like immediacy. ‘Forsilde’ (which sets a text by Jenny Blicher-Clausen) is persuasively shaped by Kryger and Górska-Kołodziejska, as is the recitative-like ‘Skggekys’ (Heine), with its harmonic twists, turns and trembles and impassioned vocal rhetoric.

Backer Grøndahl wrote almost 250 songs. It is a pity that we hear only a few here, and just three of those by Wieniawski. Given that the disc is barely 40 minutes long, perhaps there might have been room for a more extensive selection? Certainly, on the strength of this disc, a recording dedicated to the songs of either of Wieniawski or Backer Grøndahl would be very welcome.

Claire Seymour

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