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Epic - Lieder & Balladen
Stéphane Degout (baritone)
Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. 2019, Maison de l’Orchestre national d’île-de-France, Alfortville, France
Sung texts with French and English translations enclosed
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902367 [63:18]

A ballad was originally a medieval dance song, often with a narrative, and nowadays it is primarily the narrative that is its central feature, while the element of dance has been repressed. You can hear ballads in folk music and popular music but also within art song, and a famous and often heard ballad is Schubert’s Erlkönig, a setting of a ballad by Goethe, where the father is carrying his child on horseback. It is night, windy and the child sees and hears the “Elf King”, a supernatural being. The father tries to calm the child but he is more and more terrified, the father rides faster and faster, but when he reaches his destination the child is dead.

This story is well known but it is worth being retold for those unfamiliar with the genre, to give a hint of what can be expected from this disc. Erlkönig is not included in this programme, neither is Carl Loewe’s setting of the same text and composed at about the same time as Schubert’s. I suppose it was thought superfluous and more tempting to offer other gems from this repertoire. But both Schubert and Loewe are represented with other works, less frequently heard but no less frightening. And the remaining composers’ works are in the same league. So be prepared to endure a good hour of nail-biting in the company of French baritone Stéphane Degout and his British accompanist Simon Lepper.

Degout is equally at home on the opera stage and in the recital room, and the former demands skills in dramatic production that the latter can benefit from – in particular when dealing with narratives of the kind we find in the present programme. A dozen years ago he was a marvellously personable Schaunard in Bertrand de Billy’s La bohčme – a role that few singers have been able to portrait other than as a cardboard character. Besides that a couple of song recitals have come my way, one with an all-French programme, the other, issued a year ago, with songs by Fauré but also Brahms and Schumann. So he is at home in the German language world as well, which offers the core repertoire in the Gothic literature. Both Brahms and Schumann are also featured on the present disc – which may come as a surprise to some readers.

Going through the songs and ballads in the order they appear on this disc, I’ll spare you too explicit accounts of the individual stories, but still give some hints at what it all is about. Since the sung texts are included with parallel translations in French and English and with further comments in the liner notes, this is a model for how a programme like this should be presented. So here we go:

Schubert’s Der Zwerg is the cruel story of the dwarf who kills his queen because she forsook him for the king. It is beautifully sung on long legato threads, full of expression and darkly powerful – a darkness that Stéphane Degout developed between the two recitals mentioned above, issued eight years apart. In the all-French recital he was still a primarily lyrical singer, but now the voice has filled out considerably. Here he moreover sings with rather tense tone and it seems that he has to struggle to produce the tone. It may be a deliberate means to increase the intensity but it is so consistently employed that I suspect it is a sign of wear. On the other hand he has still the ability to sing a beautiful pianissimo and he has nuances aplenty at his disposal. Most important of all is that he is an expressive and engaged story-teller with excellent diction and a wide pallet of colours. These characteristics, which I jotted down while listening to Der Zwerg, are valid throughout the programme

Loewe’s ballad Edward, a Scottish poem translated by Herder, is the composer’s Op. 1 No. 1, from the same group of songs where Erlkönig also belongs. The song is a dialogue between Edward and his mother. The mother has observed that Edward’s sword is red with blood, and the son responds that he had struck his falcon dead. But the falcon’s blood is not so red. No, I struck my steed dead. The mother still doesn’t believe him and he admits that he has struck his father dead. In this horrible tale Edward doesn’t care about himself, his house and home, not even his wife and child. But what shall your mother do? “The curse of hell shall fall on you, For thus you counselled me!” Degout differentiates well between the two roles and there is a ghostlike feeling throughout.

Heine’s ballad Belsatzar, based on the Book of Daniel, famous through Rembrandt’s painting and in the 20th century musically depicted in William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, was the subject for one of Schumann’s first songs during the Year of Songs 1840. It is almost a ghost story with the enigmatic writing on the wall, which only Daniel was able to interpret and which said: God has numbered Belshazzar's days, he has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom will be given to the Medes and the Persians. “That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean (Babylonian) king was killed, and Darius the Mede received the kingdom.” (Daniel 5:30-31). The song is certainly creepy and intense, even though the narrative is rather restrained.

We return to Herder’s Edward but now in Brahms’ setting, and he set it as a real duet for two voices. Stéphane Degout has here invited Dame Felicity Palmer to sing the mother, and at 75 she creates a vivid and believable portrait, the voice still in fine fettle. I hadn’t expected the gentle Brahms to indulge in a text like this. Neither, by all means, in Eichendorff’s Die Nonne und der Ritter, another duet belonging to his relative youth in the early 1860s. The excellent guest mezzo is Marielou Jacquard.

Schumann’s Die beiden Grenadiere – Heine again – is no doubt the best known of the songs on this recital and it is sung with fervour. In Liszt’s Die drei Zigeuner the piano part is very much in the foreground and the Hungarian setting is very obvious. The Goethe setting Es war ein König in Thule is also welcome. It is so gratifying that Liszt’s songs have advanced during the last couple of decades from being relative rarities in recitals and on records – and only a handful or so of them – to being well represented on CD and at present subjected to a complete series on Hyperion. There are riches here indeed.

Hugo Wolf’s setting of Mörike’s Der Feuerritter is another ghost story about a fire rider who tries to save a mill that is burning, having been set fire to by the devil. The rider and his horse are burned to ashes. This song was famously recorded by Danish tenor Helge Rosvaenge in the 1930s as part of an extensive society edition of Wolf’s songs (a real feat in those days involving a number of the greatest singers of the day), and his intensity and dramatic identification has probably never been surpassed. Stéphane Degout cannot quite erase memories of the legendary Dane either but he isn’t far behind and the finale is very touching.

Liszt’s Tre sonetti di Petrarca are perhaps better known as piano pieces but Petrarch’s words were essential for their coming into being and I always feel strong satisfaction whenever I hear them in this version – even though my earliest acquaintance with them was the piano version back in the early 60s. The third of them makes a wonderful soothing epilogue or postlude to this programme of horror, and I can’t resist quoting the last stanza in Charles Johnston’s English translation:

And heaven listened to that harmony so intently
That not a leaf was seen to move on the branch,
Such sweetness had filled the air and the wind.
It is sung with such warmth and soft beauty of tone as to silence any criticism I have ventilated earlier in this review. But it is unfair to potential buyers of the disc not to mention what can be experienced as deficiencies. My advice as so often under such circumstances: sample before you buy. Personally I derived great pleasure of the programme and will return to it with confidence.

Göran Forsling

Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
1. Der Zwerg, D. 771 [5:54]
Carl LOEWE (1796 – 1869)
2. Edward, Op. 1 No. 1 (from Drei Balladen Op. 1) [5:46]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
3. Belsatzar, Op. 57 [5:25]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
4. Edward, Op. 75 No. 1 (from Vier Balladen und Romansen Op. 75) [4:47]
5. Die Nonne und der Ritter, Op. 28 No. 1 (from Vier Duette Op. 28) [4:29]
6. Die beiden Grenadiere, Op. 49 No. 1 (from Romanzen und Balladen Op. 49) [3:48]
Franz LISZT (1811 – 1886)
7. Die drei Zigeuner, S. 320 (1st version) [6:05]
8. Es war ein König in Thule, S. 278/2 (2nd version) [3:26]
Hugo WOLF (1860 – 1903)
9. Der Feuerreiter (from Gedichte von Eduard Mörike, No. 44) [5:39]
Tre sonetti di Petrarca, S. 270/1 (1st version)
10. Benedetto sia ‘l giorno [5:22]
11. Pace non trovo [6:21]
12. I’ vidi terra angelici costumi [6:07]

With Dame Felicity Palmer (mezzo-soprano) (4), Marielou Jacquard (mezzo-soprano) (5)

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