Thursday 3 March 2016

Entrancing duets from Lucy Crowe and William Berger

Duet - Lucy Crowe, William Berger, Iain Burnside
Duets by Peter Cornelius, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn; Lucy Crowe, William Berger, Iain Burnside; Delphian
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 29 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Showcasing the relatively neglected form of the 19th century duet

Duets were always a popular form of domestic music-making in eras without the gramophone or the radio. The form reached its zenith during the Victorian era and many major composers wrote duets, yet the form has fallen somewhat out of fashion. Few of Schumann's duets, for instance, are performed as regularly as the remainder of the composer's vocal output. On this new disc from Delphian, soprano Lucy Crowe and baritone William Berger join together to perform duets by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Peter Cornelius, accompanied by pianist Iain Burnside.

Many of the works on the disc were written specifically for publication with an eye on domestic consumption, and it has to be admitted that the songs on this disc rarely show the composers writing at their most challenging or at their darkest. Most of the music is fluently mellifluous with a tendency often to place the voices in parallel lines full of consonant intervals. Though some of the late Schumann songs do mine some more interesting territory. But within those limits the results are entrancing, especially when sung as well as this.

Lucy Crowe and William Berger have a pair of voices which have a number of contrasting timbres, but which blend admirably and they perform as a superb duet. Crowe with her intense, plangent sense of line complements Berger's wonderfully warm, flexible baritone. The two do have solo moments, but the main body of the disc is duets.

The disc opens with Schumann's Dein Angesicht (1840) written as part of Dichterliebe but omitted in the composer's revised version in a calm and beautifully shaped account from William Berger and Iain Burnside.

Peter Cornelius, whose music owes something to the influence of Wagner and Liszt, is still best known in the UK for his song Three Kings from Persian Lands Afar which, in Ivor Atkins arrangement, was in Carols for Choirs. Cornelius's Duette fur Soprano und Bass, Op. 16 were composed in 1866 and revised in 1873. The poems, by various poets, all deal with homeland, parting and death. Heimatgedenken (Thoughts of Home) is beautifully constructed and gentle, Brennende Liebe (Burning Love) is rather flowing with some beautifully floated top notes from Lucy Crowe. Komm herbei (Come Away Death) is rather gently autumnal with some interesting harmonies. Scheiden (Parting) is full of elegiac melancholy with a not uncomplex piano part. Cornelius's expression of the deep emotions in the poems is rather elegantly under-stated, and the songs have a surprisingly delightful charm.

Mendelssohn's Sechs Duette Op.63 were written between 1836 and 1844. The opening song Ich wollt meine Lieb ergosse sich (I wish that I could pour my love) is lively and impulsive, with Mendelssohn changing the meaning of Heine's poem from down- to up-beat. Abschiedslied der Zugvogel (farewell song of the migrating birds) is quietly seductive, whilst Gruss (Greeting) flows with two interweaving voices. Herbstlied (Autumn Song) is surprisingly joyful whilst Volkslied (Folksong) is gentle and beautifully crafted. The group ends with Maiglocken und die Blumelein (Lily of the Valley and the Little Flowers) which is full of perky delight and sly charm. The song was written around the same time as the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Cornelius's Fruhling im Sommer (Spring in Summer), sung by Lucy Crowe, was written in 1859 for the poet Emil Kuh's soprano wife. It is a song which showcases the plangent beauty of Lucy Crowe's voice.

Cornelius's Drei zweistimmige Lieder Op.6 were composed in 1861-62 and they were inspired by the singers, husband and wife, who created the roles of the Caliph and Mariana in the premiere of Cornelius's opera Der Barbier von Bagdad. Liebesprobe (A test of love) provides simple delights with vices often in sixths. Der beste Liebesbrief (The best love-letter) has a skittish piano part wth lively vocals to match. Ein Wort der Liebe (A word of love) starts with a romantic solo for William Berger before both voices join together, with some interesting harmonic moments. Cornelius's Zu den Bergen hebet sich ein Augenpaar (My eyes are lifted to the hills), written in 1866, sets the composer's own words, based on Psalm 121. Marked 'innig' it has two vocies gently weaving in and out.

Mendelssohn's Altdeutsches Fruhlingslied  (Old German Spring song) is his final song. Here beautifully shaped by William Berger with a flowing piano accompaniment. Next comes a trio of Schumann's songs. Familien Gemalde Op.34 No. 4 (Family Portrait) sets a poem depicting happiness passing between generations of a family, and is gentle and inward. A civilised song with beautifully shaped lines from Crowe and Berger, and a lovely postlude. Das Gluck, Op.79 No.16 (Fortune) from Schumann's 1849 Liederalbum fur die Jugend is a scherzo of a piece, delicate with a light texture. Ich bin dein Baum (I am your tree) is a gentle, inward setting of Friedrich Ruckert.

Mendelssohn's Drei Lieder fur zwei Singstimmen Op.77 were written at various times during the 1830's & 1840's . Sonntagsmorgen (Sunday morning) is a gentle and thoughtful whilst Das Ahrendfeld (the field of wheat) is perky and folk-ish in character. Finally Lied aus Ruy Blas (Song from Ruy Blas) is delicate yet joyful.

Lucy Crowe then sings Schumann's Auftrage Op.77 no.5 (Messages) with fabulously light and delicate runs from Iain Burnside accompanying Lucy Crowe's winsomely difficult to catch yet delightful vocal line, complete with finely spun high notes. The final song, one last duet, is the haunting and gentle Wiegenlied am Lager eines kranken Kindes Op.78 no.4 (Cradle song at the bedside of a sick child), Schumann's tribute to the death of his infant son in 1847.

Not all the songs on this disc plum the depths but all are beautifully constructed. And in the performances from Lucy Crowe, William Berger and Iain Burnside they more than charm with a beautiful sense of blend and control between the two voices, a real sense of singing together.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - Dein Angesicht, Op.127 No.2
Peter Cornelius (1824-1847) - Duette fur Sopran und Bass, Op.16
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Sechs Duette, Op.63
Peter Cornelius - Fruhling im Sommer
Peter Cornelius - Drei zweistimmige Liedeer, Op.6
Felix Mendelssohn - Altdeutssches Fruhlingslied, Op.86 No.6
Robert Schumann - Familien Gemalde, Op.34 No.4
Robert Schumann - Das Gluck, Op.79 No.16
Robert Schumann - Ich bin dein Baum, Op.101 No.3
Felix Mendelssohn - Drei Lieder fur zwei Singstimmen, Op.77
Robert Schumann - Auftrage, Op.77 No.5
Robert Schumann - Wiegenlied, Op.78 No.4
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
William Berger (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)
Recorded 24-26 March 2015, St Mary's Church, Haddington, East Lothian
DELPHIAN DCD34167 1CD [60.23]

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  1. They are good, but I prefer Jan Gaetani to Lucy Crowe in an alternative modern CD.

    The reference recording is still the 1969 Live Recital with Janet Baker District Fischer Dieskau and Daniel Barenboim from the QEH. Only the Brahms duets are available on CD on an EMI double CD focusing on Baker's French orchestral vocal works. The Schumann duets, indeed everything else, on the vinyl original is beyond anything since issued.

    Curiously this even applies to the full survey of Schumann duets from the late German baritone and his wife Julia Varady. This sounds cold and unromantic.

    The famous Er und Sie is covered again by Fischer Dieskau and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in the 1967 RFH live Fare to Gerald Moore Concert.

    None of these mezzo-sopranos is a patch on Dame Janet and Lucy Crowe is inevitably a shadow of this great singer in both technique and expression. William Berger is more convincing and warmer in this romantic fare, but the range, colour and full support that Fischer Dieskau conveys in these works is simply not there.

    now Edith Mathis has a recording... any ideas?

  2. Just to add for those who download. Schumann's intense In der Nacht with Schwarzkopf and Fischer Dieskau in superb voice live at the Festival Hall along with Er und Sie are available as individual tracks from Amazon, as indeed is the whole album of tributes in duets, trios and solos, to Gerald Moore the eminent accompanist. The Purcell duets from the QEH recital with Janet Baker and Fischer Dieskau are available on a tribute EMI box set to the celebrated English mezzo-soprano. The Brahms on a much older mainly French orchestral song 2CD set. All of these are available as individual downloads. I will be definitely purchasing the Lucy Crowe and William Berger CD despite my reservations from the excerpts on Radio 3 I described above, for one simple reason: these singers are to be commended for investigating and performing this neglected part of the repertoire which is full of delightful surprises, and whatever now are bound to improve in depth interpretatively as their careers progress.


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