Friday 17 January 2020

European song exploration: Malcolm Martineau's Decades - A Century of Song reaches the 1840s

Decades - A Century of Song: Volume 4 - Schumann, Dargomyzhshky, Franck, Donizetti, Lindblad, Josephson, Geijer, Mendelssohn; Anush Hovhannisyan, Ida Evelina Ranlöv, Nick Pritchard, Oliver Johnston, Florian Boesch, Alexey Gusev, Samuel Hasselhorn, Malcolm Martineau; Vivat
Decades - A Century of Song: Volume 4 - Schumann, Dargomyzhshky, Franck, Donizetti, Lindblad, Josephson, Geijer, Mendelssohn; Anush Hovhannisyan, Ida Evelina Ranzlöv, Nick Pritchard, Oliver Johnston, Florian Boesch, Alexey Gusev, Samuel Hasselhorn, Malcolm Martineau; Vivat
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 January 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Malcolm Martineau's song exploration reaches the 1840s, and shows us that there was much more to European song than simply Schumann

Pianist Malcolm Martineau's Decades - A Century of Song on Vivat reaches the 1840s with Liederkreis where he is joined by singers Anush Hovhannisyan (soprano), Ida Evelina Ranzlöv (mezzo-soprano), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Oliver Johnston (tenor), Florian Boesch (baritone), Alexey Gusev (baritone) and Samuel Hasselhorn (baritone) for a selection of songs from the decade by Robert Schumann, Alexander Sergeyevich Dargomyzhshky, Gaetano Donizetti, Adolf Fredrick Lindblad, Jacob Axel Josephson, Erik Gustav Geijer, and Felix Mendelssohn.

The problem with any selection of song from the 1840s is how to represent Schumann's great outpouring of song from 1840 (hundreds of songs from that year alone) whilst giving us a flavour of what else was going on. Whilst the German lied remained in prime position for its sheer complexity in terms of both poetry and music, its influence was such that other composers were writing music which moved away from the simple strophic song. So on this disc, alongside mature Schumann setting Heine and Mendelssohn, we have music from Russia, Sweden, France and Italy.

The recital starts with Schumann's Liederkreis, Op.24, his setting of nine songs from Heinrich Heine's 1827 Buch der Lieder. It was Schumann's first Heine cycle, and he deliberately called it a Liederkreis as the group of songs has only the vaguest of narratives, a poetic musing on love's ardour, despair and a final metamorphosis into art. Schumann takes Heine at face value, this is ardent romantic music, and we hear none of the irony in Heine's verse.
Baritone Florian Boesch gives a very intimate reading of the songs, one which seems designed for the recording rather than the concert hall. He often sings daringly on the edge of the voice, intensely quiet yet always the words predominate; this is a wonderfully poetic performance. Boesch, finely partnered by Martineau, takes us through the poetic wanderings of the poet's soul (though here perhaps, as with many of Schumann's cycles, we can feel that it is the composer's soul). The light character of songs like the opening 'Morgens steh' ich auf und trage' contrasting with vivid vigour in 'Es treibt mich hin'. These are often short songs, full of character, and in the longer ones, such as 'Ich Wandelte under den Bäumen' Boesch takes great delight in the sheer story-telling, something which really comes to the fore in the final song where the poet's grief transmutes into art.

Alexander Sergeyevich Dargomyzhshky is far less well known as a composer, though his name remains in the history books because of his operas, Rusalka and The Stone Guest, this latter an astonishing attempt to have a purely word-based recitative-like style. So it should come as no surprise to find him writing striking songs, many of which were written for his female students! We hear three sung by Anush Hovhannisyan and one sung by Alexey Gusev. Hovhannisyan sings with a lovely Slavic edge to her voice, which means that the songs are full of character. Whilst Dargomyzhshky uses closed forms, he stretches them so that the writing for the voice is not always obvious, bringing both charm and complexity into the music. And Alexey Gusev's single song is given with vivid character.

Song is not a form we associated with Cesar Franck, but he wrote around 18 of them along with six duets. Here, tenor Nick Pritchard sings four, combining lyricism with beautiful speaking tone and an emphasis on the words; in Le Sylphe we appreciate Pritchard's combination of musical line and words. These are interesting songs, Souvenance is strophic but Franck makes it more complex and not so simple, particularly in his treatment of the piano accompaniment. Throughout Pritchard sings with a naturalness which makes you think he has known these pieces for years.

We change then tenor, and Oliver Johnston sings two of Donizetti's songs. Highly prolific as an opera composer, it is perhaps surprising that Donizetti wrote songs too; in fact there are nearly 200. They were usually written for money, issued in sets of six or more to be published for performance by amateurs, or sometimes individual songs written for singers to perform in salons. They provide a side-glance at Donizetti's operatic output, these can be quasi operatic but they were aimed at more domestic music making. We hear songs from two of Donizetti's collections, Inspirations viennoises (1842) and Matinée Musicale (1841). Johnston and Martineau really emphasise the operatic character of these, Johnston sings with dark, rich operatic tenor tone and Martineau's accompaniment suggests the orchestra. This works, but I could imagine a lighter, more lyrical performance and would wish for a little more relaxed lyricism.

With the Swedish songs, the influence of Mendelssohn is felt quite strongly. Adolf Lindblad met Mendelssohn in Berlin when they were both students and they remained friends. Jacob Axel Josephson wrote a treatise in 1842 attacking Rossini and praising Mendelssohn, and Erik Gustaf Geiker was highly influenced by both Mendelssohn and by Weber.

Many of Lindblad's songs were written for Jenny Lind (with whom he had a relationship). Both his songs here are essentially strophic, but Ida Evelina Ranzlöv's vibrantly lyrical tones and strong attention to the musicality of the Swedish language. This is music big on charm, and with the salon not too far away. Josephson's single song on the disc shows an imaginative stretching of the strophic song form, complete with a lovely postlude, whilst Geijer's song brings in an element of drama.

We move from composers influenced by Mendelssohn to the man himself, with four of his songs sung by Samuel Hasselhorn. Hasselhorn sings with an engagingly vibrant baritone, and gives a nice depth to the flowing beauties of Mendelssohn's Altdeutsches Frühlingslied. The Eichendorff setting, Nachtlied, dates from shortly before Mendelssohn's death, it is a quiet and concentrated piece which develops into some powerful drama, yet always Hasselhorn sings with a fine attention to the line. Venetianisches Gondollied is a setting (in translation) of Thomas Moore, a poet who much attracted the German romantic composers. And finally, the vigorous swagger of Warnung vor dem Rhein, full of delightful story-telling.

As ever with this series, you wish that there had been more space to explore the wider fringes of European song, and include more of what has been left out. Was there really no other French song worthy of inclusion apart from Cesar Franck? But Martineau's deftness at casting his net quite widely is something to be treasured, as is his pairing of singers with songs. Here we hear seven singers and come to appreciate the vibrant differences between the voices, and the way they contribute to the songs themselves. Throughout, Martineau accompanies with style as his job varies between the complex partnership with the singers in Schumann to the simpler accompaniments of some of the others.

This is a lovely way to explore European song, and to come to realise quite what a rich vein we have that is often largely untapped in recital.

Decades - A century of song: Volume 4, 1840-1850
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - Liederkreis  
Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869) - Nochnoy zefir
Alexander Dargomyzhsky - Mne grustno
Alexander Dargomyzhsky - Shestnadtsat’ let
Alexander Dargomyzhsky - Priznaniye
Cesar Franck (1822-1890) - Souvenance
Cesar Franck - L’Emir de Bengador
Cesar Franck - Le Sylphe
Cesar Franck - Aimer
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) - Una lacrima
Gaetano Donizetti - Il sospiro
Adolf Fredrick Lindblad (1801-1878) - En Sommerdag
Adolf Fredrick Lindblad - Aftonen
Jacob Axel Josephson (1818-1880) - Serenad
Erik Gustav Geijer (1783-1847)- Natthimelen
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Altdeutsches Frühlingslied
Felix Mendelssohn - Nachtlied
Felix Mendelssohn - Venetianisches Gondellied
Felix Mendelssohn - Warnung vor dem Rhein
Anush Hovhannisyan (soprano)
Ida Evelina Ranzlöv (mezzo-soprano)
Nick Pritchard (tenor)
Oliver Johnston (tenor)
Florian Boesch (baritone)
Alexey Gusev (baritone)
Samuel Hasselhorn (baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded at Alpheton New Maltings, 2-5 July 2018, All Saints Church, East Finchley, 14-15 October 2018, 22 June 2017
VIVAT 119 1CD [72.02]
You can support Planet Hugill by buying this from Amazon.
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