Tuesday 21 December 2021

The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe

The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe; Nicholas Mogg, âms Coleman; Champs Hill Records

The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe
; Nicholas Mogg, Jâms Coleman; Champs Hill

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two young performers in an engaging exploration of the songs of Carl Loewe, going beyond the familiar ballads

I first came across the music of Carl Loewe back in the 1970s when Cathy Berberian used to sing his ballad Tom der Reimer in one of her recitals. At the time Loewe was hardly performed at all. More recently, singers have been exploring Loewe's ballads [I remember Matthew Rose performing three of them at the 2015 Oxford Lieder Festival, see my review], but his wider songs have not been so well explored.

On The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe on Champs Hill Records, baritone Nicholas Mogg and pianist Jâms Coleman explore both Loewe's ballads and his other songs.

Born the year before Schubert, Carl Loewe was well-known enough in his lifetime to be called the Schubert of North Germany. He wrote in a wide variety of genres (there are five operas, 17 oratorios, three string quartets and more), but it is for his songs (of which where are some 500) and notably his ballads that he is best known. Loewe's was a notable performer of his own songs, performing them to his own piano accompanied. And as a conductor, he gave the first performance of the 18-year-old Felix Mendelssohn's Overture A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 21 at a concert in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland) that included Mendelssohn's Concerto in A-flat major for two pianos (with Loewe and Mendelssohn as soloists), Weber's Konzertstuck and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Nicholas Mogg and Jâms Coleman started exploring Carl Loewe's songs in 2015 when they won the Oxford Lieder Festival Young Artists' Platform, going on to take up a residency at the Two Moors Festival. Starting with the ballads, including Erlkönig, Tom der Reimer and Heinrich der Vogler, they work their way to the songs which they describe as becoming a cornerstone of their programmes.

The recital begins with Tom der Reimer and ends with Herr Oluf, and in between we have Erlkönig, Edward, Heinrich der Vogler, Odin's Meeresritt, along with shorter songs. As Richard Stokes points out in his booklet note, Erlkönig and Edward were in Loewe's Opus 1 (written in 1818), they already show a mature composer. Thereafter his style seems to offer little in the way of development. And listening to the disc you become aware of the sheer variety of Loewe's style. 

The ballads have a robust energy and sophisticated sense of story-telling. Here the voice is quite unmistakable, and whilst Erlkonig lacks the sheer excitement of Schubert's setting, the sense of character is highly sophisticated and the music for the Erlking himself is wonderfully seductive.

When it comes to the smaller songs, the style is far wider in feel with a great variety of styles, though we recognise the vigorous drama in songs like Der Komet. Loewe's seems to fit musical character and style to the music, so the we don't so much get a sense of the compositional voice as his response to a particular text. Songs like Die Uhr (another ballad) have a delightful simplicity to them, whilst Die wandelnde Glocke combines this simplicity with lovely sense of humour, and this sense of humour is to the fore in Der alte Goethe

Besides Erlkönig, the disc also includes settings of such familiar Goethe texts as Wandrers Nachtlied, but then like Schubert, Loewe idolised Goethe and his poetry. And here Loewe catches a sense of calm beauty. By contrast Spirito Santo seems to be all Romantic spirituality; it might be Loewe's last song, it dates from 1864 and certainly does not quite feel like the 1860s. Another simply lovely song, perhaps surprisingly given that it is about the burial of a shepherdess, is Susses Begrabnis

What this means is that this recital is wonderfully varied, and the meaty (not to say grisly) ballads are offset by music which seems to be inspired by Bach, Mozart and more.

Mogg and Coleman bring an engaging sense of drama and story-telling to the ballads, and clearly relish those meaty moments. Possessed of a warm flexible baritone, Mogg has a great range of timbre and colours in his voice, which he uses to great effect in these stories, his Erlkonig is a wonderful piece of story-telling. Or rather their Erlkonig, because Coleman is very much a partner-in-crime here, bringing out the colour and movement in Loewe's piano parts to complement Mogg's singing. And Loewe often includes significant piano introductions, such as in Der Hirt auf der Brucke which set the scene, whilst one of the things that gives the ballads such a particular atmosphere is the way Loewe combines quite plain, direct vocal lines with vivid description and comment in the piano, all sympathetically realised here by Coleman.

This is wonderfully engaging programme, each of the bigger ballads grabs you in just the right way, with Mogg and Coleman bringing out the story-telling element (and Mogg in particular seems to relish the grisly bits, and the whole recital ends with his masterly 'Da lag Her Oluf and war tot'!), as well as enjoying the sheer variety of Loewe's talent. He is a composer who it is tricky to exactly pin down, but her he has fine advocates.

The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe
Nicholas Mogg (baritone)
Jâms Coleman (piano)
Recorded 26-29 October 2020 in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex

Available from Amazon.


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