Friday 31 January 2020

A touch of heaven: The Divine Muse, Mary Bevan & Joseph Middleton in Wolf, Schubert & Haydn

 The Divine Muse - Schubert, Haydn, Wolf; Mary Bevan, Joseph Middleton; Signum Classics
The Divine Muse - Schubert, Haydn, Wolf; Mary Bevan, Joseph Middleton; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 January 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A fascinating programme in which Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton look at the sense of the divine in songs by Schubert, Wolf and Haydn

This new disc from soprano Mary Bevan and pianist Joseph Middleton on the Signum Classics label takes us to heaven by way of 19th century Germany and Austria. The Divine Muse features songs by Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf which use texts inspired by people who were touched by the gods. So we have Ganymede (euphemistically referred to as Zeus' cup-bearer) in settings by Schubert and by Wolf as well as Dido, Venus and more, as well as Jesus and his mother. At the centre of the recital is Joseph Haydn's Arianna a Naxos, a cantata yet written with just piano accompaniment.

The idea for the programme arose when Joseph Middleton and Mary Bevan were looking for ideas which did not involve love, springtime, loss or longing! Given Mary Bevan's interest in myth and history of religion (she read Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic studies at Cambridge), the result is this intriguing programme.

We start with two of Schubert's Italian settings, both texts by Metastasio, with Schubert interestingly channelling opera seria. Mary Bevan sings with an impressively sculptural line, yet there is warmth and drama too, plus and impressive top C in Vedi, quanto adoro. Schubert's Die Götter Griechenlands (the gods of Greece) is also rather sculptural but haunting and rather touching.

A group of Hugo Wolf songs begins with his setting of Goethe's Ganymed, delicate and dreamlike with aetherial textures, clearly this Ganymed was having a lovely time. The next four are all from the Mörike Lieder. The hymn Zum neuen Jahr (A poem for the New Year) is surprisingly light and charming, whilst setting Seufzer (Sigh) is intense and full of dark drama. Gebet (prayer), by contrast is tender and slow with beautifully shaped lines. The final Wolf song in this group, Gesang Weylas (Weyla's song) is rapt as Weyla accompanies herself on a harp. Then comes Schubert's setting of Goethe's Ganymed, in complete contrast to the Wolf, this is buoyant yet gentle.

Haydn's cantata Arianna a Naxos is a large scale piece, probably written in 1789 (we are not sure for whom). He performed it whilst he was in London in 1791 with the (male!) castrato Gaetano Pacchierotti as the heroine. It is a sequence of recitative and aria, in which love-drunk Ariadne wakes up, wonders where Theseus is, climbs a hill and sees him leaving, ending with a second aria. We start in quite an intimate manner, expressive but with a nice feeling of classicism, this leads to the first aria, full of attractive anxiety, then the dramatic recitative where Mary Bevan goes from big and bold to touching. In her final aria, Mary Bevan starts movingly, yet with beautifully shaped classical lines, but ending in vivid vigour, spitting out the words.

We stay in highly classical mood with Haydn's Geistliches Lied, a sacred setting from a collection published in 1784. It is moving, yet rather formal. Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton then move back to Schubert, with the lyrical Gott im Frühlinge (God in Spring) and Marie in which Mary Bevan spins a beautiful high line.

For the final group of songs we move back to Wolf, songs from Alte Weisen, Mörike Lieder and Spanisches Liederbuch; short, intense songs which have some fascinating writing. Wie glänzt der helle Mond (How cold and distant the bright moon shines) has some striking cool, high textures, becoming rather moving as the old woman contemplates death. Auf ein altes Bild (On an old picture), where the poet contemplates a picture of the Virgin, is rather inward and rather striking. Die ihr schwebet (You who hover) depicts Mary's anxiety at a storm, with some striking textures. We end with the quiet, interior and rather touching Schlafendes Jesuskind (the sleeping Christ-child) with its fascinating chromatic melody.

Throughout, Mary Bevan sings with lovely clear tone and strong line, I have used the word sculptural more than once to describe her approach, and it is an approach that works wonderfully well with these pieces. Joseph Middleton partners her responsively, matching tone and style. This lovely recital proves an intriguing way of looking at songs, providing a refreshingly different thread linking the pieces.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Vedi, quanto adoro ingrato, D. 510
Franz Schubert - Son fra l’onde, D.78
Franz Schubert - Die Götter Griechenlands, D.677
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) - Ganymed
Hugo Wolf - Zum neuen Jahr
Hugo Wolf - Seufzer
Hugo Wolf - Gebet
Hugo Wolf - Gesang Weylas
Franz Schubert - Ganymed
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) - Arianna a Naxos
Joseph Haydn - Geistliches Lied
Franz Schubert - Gott im Frühlinge, D.448
Franz Schubert - Marie, D.658
Hugo Wolf - Wie glänzt der helle Mond
Hugo Wolf - Auf ein altes Bild
Hugo Wolf -  Die ihr schwebet
Hugo Wolf - Schlafendes Jesuskind
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
Recorded at All Saints' Church, East Finchley, 4-7 January 2019

Available from Amazon.

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