Thursday 8 April 2021

Charmes: an alternative century of song from Olena Tokar and Igor Gryshyn with music by Alma Mahler-Werfel, Clara Schumann, Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Vitezslava Kapralova

Charmes - Alma Mahler-Werfel, Clara Schumann, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Vitezslava Kapralova; Olena Tokar, Igor Gryshyn; Orchid Classics

- Alma Mahler-Werfel, Clara Schumann, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Vitezslava Kapralova; Olena Tokar, Igor Gryshyn; Orchid Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 April 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Songs by four women composers from the former BBC New Generation Artist

The Ukrainian soprano Olena Tokar is likely to be somewhat familiar to British listeners as she was a finalist at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, joined the BBC New Generation Artist scheme from 2013 to 2015, and sang the role of Juliette in Grange Park Opera's 2018 production of Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. She is currently a member of Oper Leipzig. Now Olena Tokar and pianist Igor Gryshyn have released a recital disc on Orchid Classics. Entitled Charmes, the disc is a selection of songs by four female composers, Alma Mahler-Werfel, Clara Schumann, Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Vitezslava Kapralova.

The recital thus provides us with a survey of a century of song from around 1840 to 1940, which moves in parallel with the standard narrative, and of course with all four composers there is the danger of seeing them in terms of the men in their lives rather than from their own point of view. This is particular true of Alma Mahler-Werfel and Clara Schumann, both of whom were married to composers. Perhaps more to the point, both suffered from the fact that for a 19th or early 20th century woman, composing was seen as being incompatible with married life. For all Robert Schumann's ostensible support, Clara had to fit composition in between the rest of a very busy life, whilst Alma was positively dissuaded (even forbidden at one point) by her husband, Gustav Mahler and she does not seem to have returned to composition after Gustav's death.

Tokar and Gryshyn begin with Five Songs, which Mahler-Werfer wrote between 1899 and 1910, and published in 1911 (under the name Alma Maria Schindler-Mahler) not long before Mahler's death. The songs set texts by Richard Dehmel (1862-1920), Otto Erich Hartleben (1864-1905), Julius Bierbaum (1865-1910), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), all but the last one being contemporary to the composer and very much associated with current trends in Vienna (Hartleben translated Albert Giraud's Pierrot Lunaire into German, which formed the basis for Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire which premiered in 1912). Listening to these songs you remember that Mahler-Werfel studied with Alexander Zemlinsky before she met Mahler, and the songs very much inhabit the world of early Richard Strauss and early Schoenberg rather than Gustav Mahler, complex, lyrical and seductive yet often suffused with chromaticism and tension.

Clara Wieck was a child prodigy (and nurtured as such by her father), she not only played the piano but she composed and in fact Robert Schumann helped the teenage Clara with her piano concerto. Her composing continued throughout her marriage to Robert, but though he was ostensibly supportive the stress of fitting composition in seems to have got to her and sapped her confidence in her own music. And after Robert's death she ceased composing, though did produce some arrangements. If you hear one of her songs, the adjective Schumann-esque comes to mind, but if you consider them then there is a different personality here, a different way of relating voice to piano, a subtle handling of chromaticism and it is tempting to think that an element of gender comes into her handling of the texts by the masculine poets of the time, a sense of writing from a different point of view..

Here we have a selection of Clara Schumann's songs, starting with three of her Opus 12 songs which were a joint project with Robert in 1840 to words by Friedrich Rückert, Liebst du um Schönheit, Er ist gekommen,  and Warum willst du and’re fragen. Then O Lust, o Lust, vom Berg ein Lied  and Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort from her Opus 23 which date from 1853 (which is very late in Clara Schumann's composing career). These last two tempt you into wondering where she might have gone as a composer, they certain do not parallel her husband's complex development in his late songs. But again, we can detect a distinct voice which is too often not sufficiently noticed.

Pauline Viardot-Garcia was, like Clara Schumann, a significant 19th century performer and like Clara, Viardot-Garcia placed her performing career first (she created the role of Fides in Meyerbeer's Le Prophete in 1849 and in 1859 Berlioz created the role of Orphée in his version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice for Viardot). Her operas, of which Cendrillon is the best known, she regarded simply as teaching works and despite writing around 100 songs, she didn't regard herself as a composer. They were probably written for her own salon, for herself or for pupils. The selection of poets here is interesting, Eduard Mörike (in German), Xavier de Maistre (in French), and Alexander Pushkin and Alanasy Fet in Russian (though two of the Russian songs were originally set in German). The Russian element, of course, comes from the fact that the novelist Ivan Turgenev virtually lived with Viardot-Garcia and her husband! (And in fact she wrote operas to Turgenev's librettos).

The musical style veers towards the salon, and is admittedly conservative but she certainly has style and these are songs full of character. It is fascinating hearing the settings of Pushkin and Fet, apparently linguistically sympathetic yet sounding nothing like contemporary Russian song. 

Finally on the disc, the least known composer. The Czech Vitezslava Kapralova was born in Brno, the daughter of a composer (father) and a singer (mother). She studied first at Brno Conservatory, and then with Vítězslav Novák, and Václav Talich in Prague, and  Bohuslav Martinů (and possibly Nadia Boulanger) in Paris. Quite a pedigree. And she had quite a career, accumulating a body of work and conducting both the Czech Philharmonic and the BBC Orchestra. But she died at the age of 25, misdiagnosed so a double tragedy. Here is a very distinct, confident and fascinating voice. The songs date from the 1930s, but there is an independence of spirit here. We don't hear many of the fashionable isms, no jazz, no neo-classicism. Instead there is a seductive chromaticism, a sense of impressionism and a definite way of creating an effect with just voice and piano, and two of the songs are to her own poetry.

Olena Tokar has a lovely fluid, bright-toned soprano voice which flows beautifully around these songs, and she makes each work stylish and apt in style. She is similarly fluent in the way she moves between languages. She is well supported by pianist Igor Gryshyn, who makes a fine partner throughout the disc. My only quibble is the piano sound which gives the instrument a somewhat period feels, as if aiming for a mid-century Erard.

As with the best recital programmes, this selection makes for a satisfying listen when taken whole yet also makes you want to go off an explore the composers' songs further. 

Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879-1964) - Five Songs
Clara Schumann (1819-1896) - Liebst du um Schönheit
Clara Schumann  - Er ist gekommen
Clara Schumann  - Warum willst du and’re fragen
Clara Schumann - O Lust, o Lust, vom Berg ein Lied
Clara Schumann - Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort
Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821-1910) - Nixe Binsefuß
Pauline Viardot-García - Hai luli
Pauline Viardot-García - Der Gärtner
Pauline Viardot-García - На холмах Грузии | On Georgian hills
Pauline Viardot-García - Две розы | Two roses
Pauline Viardot-García - Тихо вечер догорает | Golden glow of the mountain peaks
Pauline Viardot-García - Не пой, красавица, при мне | Do not sing, my beauty, to me
Vitezslava Kapralova (1915-1940) - Navždy | Forever (Op.12 No.1)
Vitezslava Kapralova - Potkali se včera lidé dva | Two people met yesterday
Vitezslava Kapralova - Až jednoho dne se budeš ptát | One day you will ask
Vitezslava Kapralova - Ruce | Hands (Op.12 No.3)
Olena Tokar (soprano)
Igor Gryshyn (piano)
Recorded 6-7 August 2019, Villa Ida, Leipzig

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