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Carl Michael BELLMAN (1740-1795)
Martin Best (tenor, guitar and cyster)
Sung in English
rec. 1982, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI5174 [45:01]

Martin Best, who has been called the ‘first great contemporary troubadour’, recorded a series of CDs for Nimbus in the 1980s and 1990s, which I am now in the process of reviewing. The Swedish composer Carl Michael Bellman is featured on the front of this booklet, singing to his guitar. On the back, sitting cross-legged, is Martin Best, almost his doppelganger! But I wonder if Bellman sang with as much character as Best did.

The other recordings which Best made at that time were mostly with his own ensemble. Those were songs and dances by composers of the 12-14th centuries, incorporating many shadowy figures from those times. This disc is different. It is devoted to just one composer: fourteen songs by the little-known (at least in the UK) Stockholm-born Carl Michael Bellman. The man, however, is still popular throughout Scandinavia. Best tells us in his brief but fascinating notes that Bellman sells out concerts there; at least that seemed to be the case thirty years ago. Children also learn the tunes. And what excellent and memorable melodies they are. They stick in the memory largely due to the strophic and therefore repetitive nature of the songs but also because of the simple but catchy rhythms. It is all a ‘swizz’, however, as most of the tunes were either well known at the time or were from popular operas. For example, Epistle 2, An Elegy, uses a melody from Grétry’s opera L’amitie a l’épreuve, and there is another from Handel’s Acis and Galetea. That was Bellman’s strength. Indeed, one can think of him as a Swedish John Gay.

The words, and there are clearly many of them, have not be reproduced in the booklet. That is a pity because they seem to be witty and fun. Sorry to say, Best’s diction is not always clear, and he is not helped by the somewhat resonant acoustic favoured by Nimbus at that time. At least you can hear them in English, brilliantly translated by Paul Britten Austin and Tom Fletcher to fit the music. And although we have the precise titles as on the back of the CD, the songs could as easily have been listed as ‘Fredmans Epistle’ or ‘Fredman’s Song’ since the texts follow stories about a beleaguered watchmaker named Fredman and various other characters including Moritz, a consumptive tavern cellist, and also a nymph and a priestess! These characters appear in almost all of 82 Epistles and 65 Songs that Bellman produced.

Bellman’s favoured story lines include much drinking, sex, hunting and outdoor activities, and can be a bit risqué but also very tender. Martin Best wonderfully captures these contrasting moods with sometime strength and sometime gentleness and pathos.

Like all good troubadours, Best accompanies himself beautifully on guitar but also on an instrument you may unfamiliar with, the cyster, a sort of small guitar like an old cittern.

Quite an oddity, then, which only created a few ripples at the time but a disc not without its merits and interests.

Gary Higginson

Epistle [2:02]
Epistle 71 [4:09]
Song 32 [2:28]
Epistle 82 [5:43]
Song 56 [1:52]
Song 16 [1:25]
Cradle Song [2:15]
Song 64 [2:45]
Song 14 [3:07]
Epistle 52 [3:16]
Epistle 80 [4:29]
Song 32 [4:44]
Song 38 [1:34]
Song 54 [5:12]

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