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Decades. A Century of Song - Volume 4 1840-1850
Anush Hovhannisyan (soprano), Ida Eveline Ränzlöv (mezzo-soprano), Nick Pritchard (tenor); Oliver Johnston (tenor); Florian Boesch (baritone); Alexey Gusev (baritone); Samuel Hasselhorn (baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Alpheton New Maltings; All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
Texts and English translations included
VIVAT 119 [72:02]

I have enjoyed the first three volumes of Vivat’s series Decades. A Century of Song (review ~ review ~ review). Now Malcolm Martineau’s discerning and varied exploration of art songs has reached the 1840s.

No survey of the 1840s could – or should – omit Robert Schumann and here we have Florian Boesch in Liederkreis. Looking back through my listening notes, I wrote of the last song, ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’ the following comment: “very nuanced reading in response to both words and music”. To be honest, that verdict could apply to the performance of the entire cycle. Boesch’s approach to the opening song, ‘Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage’ is subtle, even confiding and I like it very much. He finds lots of contrast in ‘Es treibt mich hin’ while the gentle melancholy of ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ is very beautifully conveyed. Boesch brings a lovely, even legato and burnished tone to ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’ and urgency to ‘Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann’. His artistry is complemented at every turn by perceptive and beautifully judged playing by Malcolm Martineau. They give a distinguished and highly persuasive account of Schumann’s great Heine cycle.

The traversal of continental Europe moves from Schumann’s Germany to Russia for four songs by Alexander Dargomyzhsky. The last of these, Priznaniye (Confession) is entrusted to the Russian baritone, Alexey Gusev. His contribution to Volume 3 in this series impressed me and he makes a fine impression on this occasion also; he left me wanting more. The first three songs in this group are allotted to the Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan who I previously encountered in Volume 2. In her booklet essay Susan Youens describes Nochnay zefir (Night breeze) as “an expansive rondo-song” and it’s given suitably expansive treatment by Miss Hovhannisyan. Her rich-toned voice is very well suited to the melancholy Mne grustno (I am sad) and I also enjoyed her way with Shestnadtsat’ let (Sixteen Years Old). This song is fairly simple in its strophic design but very enjoyable and Anush Hovhannisyan tells the story in an engaging manner.

I must admit that I’d never associated César Franck with the song repertoire. Apparently, he composed a mere 18 songs plus six duets. Here we’re given the opportunity to hear four of his songs. All of them are sung by the young English tenor, Nick Pritchard. I’ve heard him singing live on two previous occasions, both times in English music, and I’ve been very impressed with him. It now transpires that he’s extremely well suited to French music too. His timbre is on the light side – though not lacking in strength – and there’s a plangency in his tone which fits well with the French language. Souvenance is a nice song and Susan Youens draws a very apt comparison with the piano part in Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade. Le Sylphe has a light, flowing piano part which Malcolm Martineau delivers with a lovely touch. The melodic line is light and airy and Pritchard makes it most attractive. He sings the final song in the group, Aimer eloquently and once again he benefits from splendid support from Martineau.

Another young English tenor, Oliver Johnston is allocated the two Donizetti songs. He sings them well and with an appropriate Italianate ring to his voice: I just wish he had been given more interesting material to sing. I should qualify that by admitting a prejudice: I am no fan of Donizetti’s operas and the two songs included here sound to me very similar to what one might expect to encounter in one of the operas. If you’re more attuned to Donizetti than I am then I’m sure you’ll enjoy the songs. You’ll certainly be in good hands with Johnston and Martineau.

I think I’m correct in saying that this Decades project has not previously visited Sweden but here we have four songs by three Swedish composers, all of whom were new names as far as I’m concerned. All four songs are sung by the Swedish mezzo, Ida Eveline Ränzlöv. I’ve not heard her before but I liked her contributions to this disc very much. Adolf Fredrik Lindblad’s En Sommerdag is a charming, attractive song. I learned from the notes that Lindblad became an enduring friend of Mendelssohn when both studied with Carl Friedrich Zelter. I think Lindblad’s songs, at least as represented here, betray an influence of Mendelssohn. Perhaps even more influential was the composer’s friendship – and romantic involvement – with Jenny Lind. Anyway, En Sommerdag falls very pleasingly on the ear, as does Miss Ränzlöv’s performance of it. Equally attractive is Aftonen where Lindblad’s musical expression is nicely direct in style. Serenad by Jacob Axel Josephson is an interesting song and it’s engagingly performed.

We end this musical journey almost where we began, which is to say in Germany but now with the music of Mendelssohn. The four songs included here are allotted to the young baritone, Samuel Hasselhorn. I liked his singing a lot. The voice is firm and well-focused and he’s very well suited to the mellifluous, fluency of Altdeutsches Frühlingslied. Nachtlied is a serious song which Hasselhorn sings beautifully. For much of the time the music is rapt and fairly subdued, though shortly before the end Mendelssohn increases the intensity before relapsing into the quiet mood in which the song began. The last song in the group, Warnung vor den Rhein is a more light-hearted affair and it makes a pleasing conclusion to the programme as a whole.

This fourth volume in the series continues the high standards established in previous releases. If I’m honest, Liederkreis represents the musical peak of this programme; the remaining songs are interesting and well worth hearing but none really matches the stature of Schumann’s songs. That said, it’s fascinating to discover what else was going on in terms of art song composition in the 1840s and, as ever, the programme has been shrewdly chosen by Malcolm Martineau. It’s also good that the series is continuing its policy of involving younger singers along with more established artists, Florian Boesch is very well-known, of course, but though the names of his companions may be less prominent at the moment all distinguish themselves. In Malcom Martineau all the singers benefit from having the services of a perceptive and expert pianist partner.

Excellent production values have been a feature of this series from day one and continue here. Susan Youens’ notes are full of interesting and insightful comment and all the texts are provided. The three sets of recording sessions took place in two locations and different engineers were involved but the recorded sound is consistently good with the voices expertly balanced with the piano.

If you’re already following this series, you’ll need no encouragement from me to invest in this latest instalment. However, if you’re an enthusiast for art songs but have yet to investigate this interesting and enterprising series then I strongly recommend you to take the plunge and this disc would be a very good place to start.

John Quinn

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Liederkreis, Op 24
Alexander DARGOMYZHSKY (1815-1869)
Nochnay zefir (Night breeze)
Mne grustno (I am sad)
Shestnadtsat’ let (Sixteen Years Old)
Priznaniye (Confession)
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Souvenance FWV 70
L’Émir de Bengador FWV 72
Le Sylphe FWV 73
Aimer FWV 76
Gustavo DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Una lacrima (Preghiera)
Il sospiro
Adolf Fredrik LINDBLAD (1801-1878)
En Sommerdag
Jacob Axel JOSEPHSON (1818-1860)
Serenad, Op 8
Erik Gustav GEIJER (1763-1847)
Natthimelen, Op 6 No 2
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Altdeutsches Frühlingslied Op Posth. 86, No 6
Nachtlied Op 71, No 6
Venetianisches Gondelied Op 57 No 5
Warnung vor den Rhein WoO 16

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