Monday 8 March 2021

The undeservedly neglected lieder of Josephine Lang are at the centre of this lovely recital from Scottish-German mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison

The dark night has vanished - Edvard Grieg, Johannes Brahms, Josephine Lang, Robert Schumann; Catriona Morison, Malcolm Martineau; LINN

The dark night has vanished
- Edvard Grieg, Johannes Brahms, Josephine Lang, Robert Schumann; Catriona Morison, Malcolm Martineau; LINN

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 March 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
An imaginative programme which moves from songs central to the German lied tradition to those more tangential but no less deserving of performance, in a finely crafted and engaging recital

The dark night has vanished from Linn Records, features mezzo-sopano Catriona Morison and pianist Malcom Martineau in songs by Edvard Grieg, Johannes Brahms, Josephine Lang and Robert Schumann. The recital presents songs by two composers central to the German lied tradition alongside two who are seen as perhaps more tangential, one by reason of distance and the other by reason of gender.

Whilst Grieg did study at the Leipzig Conservatoire, song in the lied tradition was never central to his art and most of his songs are settings of his native language. Josephine Lang was mentored by and friends with many of the major figures of the 19th century song tradition including Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann, and unusually continued her musical career after marriage, but she has remained undeservedly little known.

Catriona Morison was the join winner of the Song Prize at the 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and the winner of the main prize; the first British singer to win the main prize. From 2017-2019 she was a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and the recording is a co-production with BBC Radio 3.

The recital opens with Grieg's Sechs Lieder, Opus 48; written in the late 1880s, they are the first songs that Grieg set in German since his Opus 2 and Opus 4 were published in the mid 1860s. The Opus 48 songs set quite a variety of poets, Heinrich Heine, a translation by Emanuel Geibel of a 16th century poem by Cristobal de Castillejo, Johann Ludwig Uhland, Walter von der Vogelweide, Goethe and Friedrich Martin von der Bodenstedt. 'Gruss' starts things off in a delightfully bright manner, and both Morison and Martineau have a spring in their step. 'Dereinst, Gedanke mein' (from the Spanisches Liederbuch and set also by Schumann and by Wolf) is more inward and thoughtful. 'Lauf der Welt' has an engaging charm about it whilst the piano rhythms could not but be by Grieg. This is also true of 'Die verschiegene Nachtigall', which sets words by the 13th-century Minnesinger Walther von der Vogelweide. Here the vocal line is pure Grieg, sung by Morison with engaging simplicity, showing that whilst the texts belong to the German lied tradition these songs are anything but. 'Zu Rosenzeit' is a touching exploration of lost love, ful of grave melancholy. The final song in the set, 'Ein Traum' rises to real passion at the end, a fabulous end to the song set.

The six songs by Johannes Brahms on the disc all date from the 1870s and 1880s, so around the time Grieg was writing his songs, but the style is more considered and with less of the folk-inspired freedom that Grieg brought to his music. Brahms could be just as unbuttoned as Grieg, but not when addressing the German song tradition. We begin with 'Dein blaues Auge' setting Klaus Groth, sober and thoughtful with shapely phrases, then comes another minor poet, Hermann Lingg, in 'Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer' which has a grave beauty to its melancholy lyricism. 'Madchenlied' uses a text by Paul Heyse also set by Schumann; here the song has a melancholy longing which rises to passion. The name of Hans Schmidt's 'Sapphische Ode' refers simply to the poetic form rather than the subject matter, and here Brahms is dignified and inward. 'Alte Liebe', setting Karl August Candidus, is a darker piece, flowing yet full of complex emotions, and in her booklet note Susan Youens links the song to Brahms' unrequited love for Clara Schumann and the song even borrows a motif from one of Clara's pieces. 'Mein Liebe ist grun' continues the Schumann connection by setting words by Robert and Clara's son Felix (who died from TB aged just 25); a song full of stormy passions and chromatic harmonies.

Josephine Lang wrote around 300 songs, most of which were published and despite ill-health she developed a career as a composer and a pedagogue, though her life was not without complexities and tragedy. She received particular support from Felix Mendelssohn and from Clara Schumann. The songs on this disc date from the 1830s and early 1840s, a period when she was receiving support from Mendelssohn and when she met and fell in love with Reinhold Köstlin, a law professor who also wrote poetry. The two would marry, but Köstlin died, probably from cancer, in 1856.

We begin with 'Scheideblick' which sets Nikolaus Lenau, and in fact this is one of a group of Lenau settings that Lang performed for the poet. It is a prayerful song, full of deep thoughts. 'Ob ich manchmal dein gedenke' sets one of Köstlin's poems, and he would write poems for Lang which she would then set, an intimate connection which somewhat resembles the musical intertwining of Robert and Clara Schumann at a similar period. The song appears simple at first, but you realise that it is not. 'Die Schwalben', setting Christoph August Tiedge, is delightfully playful, whilst 'Gestern und Heute', setting Fernanda Pappenheim, is an evocation of quiet stilless, yet we feel emotions too. 'Mignons Klage', setting the famous text by Goethe, is full of vivid emotion, but there is an interesting pause in the piano before the final verse, and you feel a sense of Lang being determinedly different in her approach to the well-known song. Finally there is 'Abschied', setting Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze, bringing the group to a beautifully touching conclusion.

Hearing Lang's songs you struggle to understand why her music is so little known, and I do hope that this disc will make other young artists want to explore the music of this fascinating artist. 

Robert Schumann's Sechs Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem date from relatively late in the composer's composing career (1850), a time when his style was changing. He had set six poems by Nikolaus Lenau as a memorial to the poet, having heard a mistaken report that the poet had died, hence the appending of the final 'Requiem', in fact though the report was false by the time Schumann sent the songs for publication the poet was indeed dead!

We begin in wonderfully vigorous and robust fashion with 'Lied eines Schmied'. Then in 'Mein Rose', it is the piano that begins, and I have always loved the way the voice enters almost conversationally as if continuing something said earlier; which of course it is, as the voice follows on from the piano argument. 'Kommen und Scheiden' feels less like a lied and more of a lyrical stream of consciousness, 'Die Sennin' is engagingly impulsive and the performance from Morison and Martineau is lightly ardent. 'Einsamkeit' is touching yet with a Bach-inspired piano part which almost has an independent existence. 'Der schwere Abend' is sombre, thoughtful and dark, leading to the dignified and moving passion of 'Requiem' which sets a translation of a poem by Heloise d'Argenteuil. Yet there is passion too, in a beautifully shaped performance.

We get full texts and translations, along with articles by Harald Krebs (about Josephine Lang) and by Susan Youens (about the remainder of the disc). Booklet articles fall into two categories, those that clearly follow the running order, and those, like the articles here,  which are intended partly as stand-alone works and ignore the running order. I have to admit that I find the latter rather annoying, though clearly not everyone does!

This is a lovely recital, imaginatively thought out and beautifully executed. Catriona Morison is clearly a young singer to watch, and on this showing she provides and intelligent and engaging presence throughout the recital. She was beautifully partnered by Malcolm Martineau, always a sensitive presence on the disc.

The dark night has vanished
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) - Sechs Lieder, Opus 48
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - Dein balues Auge, Op.59 No.8
Johannes Brahms - Immer leiser wifd mein Schlummer, Op.105 No.2
Johannes Brahms -  Madchenlied, Op.107 No.5
Johannes Brahms -  Sapphische Ode, Op.94 No.4
Johannes Brahms -  Alte Liebe, Op.72 No.1
Johannes Brahms -  Meine Liebe is grun, Op.63 No. 5
Josephine Lang (1815-1880) - Scheideblick, Op.10 No.5
Josephine Lang - Ob ich manchmal dein gedenke, Op.27 No.3
Josephine Lang - Die Schwalben, Op.10 No.3
Josephine Lang - Gestern und Heute
Josephine Lang - Mignons Klage Op.10 No.2
Josephine Lang - Abschied
Robert Schumann (1880-1856)
Sechs Gedichte und Requiem Op.90
Catriona Morison (mezzo-soprano)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded in Crear, Kilberry, UK, 9-11 December 2019
LINN CKD 637 1CD [63:13]

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