Thursday 25 May 2017

Decades: A Century of song 1820-1830

Decades: A Century of Song, volume 2 - 1820-1830 - Vivat
Schubert, Glinka, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Niedermeyer, Loewe, Bellini; Anush Hovhannisyan, Sarah Connolly, John Mark Ainsley, Robin Tritschler, Luis Gomes, Christopher Maltman, Malcolm Martineau; Vivat
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 22 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A survey of songs from the 1820s mixing the Schubert greats with some lesser known and some gems

This is the second in Malcolm Martineau's series on Vivat, A Century of Song, exploring songs decade by decade (see my review of volume one). This disc looks at the period 1820 to 1830 so we have a selection of Schubert's final songs, a pair of early songs by Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn, plus songs by Glinka, Louis Niedermeyer, Carl Loewe and Vincenzo Bellini. As with the first volume, the songs are performed by a wide selection of artists, Christopher Maltman, John Mark Ainsley, Anush Hovhannisyan, Luis Gomes and Robin Tritschler.

The interesting problem with this concept is of course the difficulty in selecting songs, for this decade there is the need to do justice to the towering masterpieces of Schubert whilst looking at what was going on elsewhere. French song is largely ignored, with just Louis Niedermeyer's single song. Susan Youens' booklet article talks about Niedermeyer breaking the mould of the old-fashioned strophic romance, though we are not treated to a sample of this type of song, whereas Bellini's ariettes are included. Here Youens says 'if they are trifles, they are exceedingly elegant ones', but if Bellini's trifles can be included why not others. I was also intrigued that none of Louis Spohr's songs have made it to the disc, and where on earth is the Berlioz?

We start with a group of Schubert songs dating from the early to mid 1820s. Christopher Maltman gives a vivid and urgent account of Auf der Brücke with Malcolm Martineau providing strong accents and plenty of forward impulse in the piano. Im Frühling is sung by John Mark Ainsley with a beautifully shaped, lightly lyric performance with gentle accompaniment from Martineau. The next pair of songs is sung by Maltman with wonderfully dark and sombre account of Aus 'Heliopolis' and a Gondelfahrer full of moonlight and mystery. The final Schubert song in this group is Auflösung sung by Sarah Connolly with a great sense of mystery and rapture, though the recording does not always capture her voice in the most flattering light and her later contributions on the disc are rather better reflections of her voice.

The group of Glinka songs is a wonderful discovery, full of influences of Italian opera combined with Russian themes. O tell my why is a charming delight, with Anush Hovhannisyan really bringing out the character of the piece and conveying the Russian words, all with a smile in her voice. Do not seduce me with no reason is more melancholy, and the Slavic tone of Hovhannisyan's voice brings out the wistfulness of the words and she does wonders conveying the underlying intensity of the song. Finally Sehnsucht has great charm but both performers bring out something more in the song too.

Next comes a pair of early songs, by Schumann and Mendelssohn, sung by John Mark Ainsley. Schumann's Sehnsucht flows beautifully with great lyric beauty, whilst Mendelssohn's Minnelied in Mai is finely shaped, though neither makes a really big impression.

Robin Tritschler makes his only appearance on the disc with Le lac by the Swiss composer Louis Niedermeyer, where we can appreciated the hints of Romanticism in Niedermeyer's style alongside the superb control and lovely sense of line from Tritschler. Over seven and a half minutes long, the song is, however, a little over-extended for its material.

Carl Loewe is represented by two the dramatic ballads for which he is famous, both sung by Christopher Maltman. He and Martineau almost banish thoughts of Schubert with their terrific account of Erlkönig, full of vivid characterisation and storytelling from both, though ultimately the song just lacks the emotional punch of Schubert's version. Both give a strong sense of narrative characterisation in Herr Oluf, a long piece about the Erlking's daughter, and Maltman crowns it with a spectacular bottom note at the end.

We move to Italy next for three of Bellini's ariettes, Malinconia Nifa gentile, Ma rendi pur contento and Vanne or rosa fortunata. These are delightful pieces sung with Italianate vibrancy by Luis Gomes, but they remain elegant trifles when compared to the operas.

For the final group we return to Schubert. Sarah Connolly sings the three Ellens Gesang (Ellen's songs based on translations from Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake). The first is sung with sober dignity, and a lovely feel of a serenade with interruptions. In the second we get some lovely hunting effects in the piano and creeping into the voice, whilst the third is the most familiar but Connolly imbues it with a lovely calmness. In all three she brings great intelligence to the phrasing and the words.

John Mark Ainsley sings Der Winterabend, a deeply thoughtful song to which Ainsley brings a great sense of control and real inwardness. Then finally, Der Taubenpost, the final song from Schubert's Schwanengesang, in finely sung and beautifully touching account by Christopher Maltman.

The disc feels more like 'Schubert songs in context' rather than a complete portrait of the 1820s, but there are some lovely gems on this disc. The concept remains fascinating though I am not certain whether, as a recital, it is something to which I would want to repeatedly listen from beginning to end but it is certainly something to dip into and to explore what was happening in the world of song in the 1820s.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Auf der Brücke
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Im Frühling
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Aus 'Heliopolis'
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Gondelfahrere
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Auflösung
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857) - O tell me why
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857) - Do not seduce me with no reason
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857) - My harp
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - Sehnsucht
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Minnelied im Mai
Carl Niedermeyer (1802-1861) - Le lac
Carl Loewe (1796-1869) - Erlkönig
Carl Loewe (1796-1869) - Herr Oluf
Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) - Malinconia, Ninfa gentile
Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) - Ma rendi pur contento
Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) -  Vanne, o rosa forunata
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Ellen's gesang I, II, III
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Der Winterabend
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Die Taubenpost
Anush Hovhannisyan (soprano)
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Robin Tritschler (tenor)
Luis Gomes (tenor)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded at All Saints' Church, East Finchley, 3 & 23 June, 8 October 2015, 22 June 2016
VIVAT 114 1CD [79.36]
Available from Amazon.

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