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Visions of Childhood
April Fredrick (soprano)
English Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Woods
rec. July 2020, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Texts and English translations included
NIMBUS NI6408 [79:30]

This CD was sent to me out of the blue, and I had none of the experiences that John Quinn was able to draw upon when writing his review. As a result, I would strongly recommend you read his response to this recording. Mine will be solely a review of the disc, which at first gave a rather odd impression, but became one to which I increasingly warmed once I began to understand the concept.

The first seven tracks form a kind of suite that forms ‘visions of a journey through life’. After a curtain-raiser fragment from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony we are treated to a pleasantly transparent arrangement of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, approaching the way it might have sounded when played by a small ensemble for the composer’s wife Cosima on Christmas morning in 1870. The tenderness in this music is taken here to represent new life, composed as it was at the time of the birth of Richard and Cosima’s son Siegfried. The theme of childhood is further developed in a scene from Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel in which, lost and frightened in the forest, the two children are helped to sleep by the Sandman. In a witty and effective extended arrangement, Schubert’s song Die Forelle is an innocent sounding setting of a text that carries scarcely hidden allegorical warnings to the girl in the song, who is outraged when a fisherman tricks the trout onto his hook. Mahler is introduced at this point with his song “The Earthly Life”, reminding us of the pain of hunger and death, a theme taken further in Schubert’s Der Tod und das Mädchen. This always moving music is then linked to Mahler’s Das himmilsche Leben or “The Heavenly Life”, a song infused with the fairy-tale world of Das Knaben Wunderhorn and one that shows us “heaven through the eyes of a child.”

Expertly arranged and performed, and sung beautifully and with convincing dramatic emphasis by April Fredrick, this is a fascinating and well-considered sequence. I wouldn’t consider it particularly aimed at children, though it can of course be enjoyed by anyone. It has certainly made me look at some familiar music in a new light and, as we have all experienced childhood and many of us parenthood, it should prod some emotional responses out of even the most cynical listener.

This is likely to be the first time that Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder has appeared as a ‘filler’, but this is also the world première recording of James Ledger’s reduced orchestra arrangement, originally written for Dame Felicity Lott and first performed in Wigmore Hall. Ledger correctly observes that “an arrangement should be seen as a separate version in its own right” and not as “trying to improve on the original.” Ideally we should be able to disconnect from associations with the more opulent orchestration, appreciating Strauss’s music for its inherent qualities, and with an excellent performance and recording such as this one the task is made easy enough. My only observation would be that, in places, the voice seems placed by Strauss to ride above a full orchestra, and can sound a little high and ‘stranded’ with only the 13 instruments by way of support. Soprano April Fredrick has this work as a central part of her repertoire, and was due to perform the cycle with the ESO in June 2020, an event that was of course cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. All sung texts are printed in the booklet, and this is an unusual but entirely engaging production that I have come to enjoy and appreciate more each time I have heard it.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: John Quinn

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911), arr. Erwin Stein Symphony No 4 (opening) [0:15]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883), arr. Kenneth Woods Siegfried Idyll WWV103 [18:30]
Engelbert HUMERDINCK (1854-1921) arr. Woods ‘Der Kleine Sandmann’ / ‘Abendsegen’ (Hänsel und Gretel) [4:57]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828), arr, Woods Die Forelle, Lied and Variations for soprano and orchestra [5:45]
Gustav MAHLER, arr. Woods ‘Das irdische Leben’ (Des Knaben Wunderhorn) [3:10]
Franz SCHUBERT, arr. Woods Der Tod und das Mädchen, Variations and Lied for chamber ensemble and soprano [15:33]
Gustav MAHLER, arr. Stein Das himmlische Leben (Symphony No 4) [9:11]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949), arr. James Ledger Vier letzte Lieder TrV296 [22:19]

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