Thursday 9 March 2023

Shifting harmonies & tonal instability: Kitty Whately & Joseph Middleton are sympathetic & communicative in their programme of late-Romantic lieder on Befreit: A Soul Surrendered

Befreit: A Soul Surrendered  - songs by Johanna Müller-Hermann, Richard Strauss, Margarete Schweikert, Gustav Mahler; Kitty Whately, Joseph Middleton; Chandos
Befreit: A Soul Surrendered  - songs by Johanna Müller-Hermann, Richard Strauss, Margarete Schweikert, Gustav Mahler; Kitty Whately, Joseph Middleton; Chandos

Early 20th-century Vienna is the focus for this disc of lieder focused around the intense subject of love and loss illuminated by gloriously sympathetic and communicative performances

The new disc from mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and pianist Joseph Middleton on Chandos is entitled Befreit: A Soul SurrenderedThe title track is Richard Strauss' Befreit, a strange but lovely song to a poem about someone dying. Around this, they have crafted a haunting programme of lieder by composers mainly from Vienna including Richard Strauss and ending with Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder but also including two lesser-known names, Johanna Müller-Hermann and Margarete Schweikert, both of whom seem to have disappeared from view because of their sex rather than from any inherent quality of their music.

The music on the disc all circles around the late-Romantic, there are advanced harmonies yet moments of looking back. No-one approaches Schoenberg, quite, yet there is a sense of the instability of the harmonic world.

Whately and Middleton begin with a pair of songs by Johanna Müller-Hermann. She was a nicely brought-up Viennese young lady who somehow managed to continue her musical education beyond what was conventional. She studied with a number of Viennese teachers including Zemlinsky and Franz Schmidt. We begin with a pair of songs, both of which speak of love and loss. Wie eine Vollmondnacht from songs published in the 1940s but which probably dates from the 1920s. Then Die letzte Abend from her first published collection of 1907. The sound world here seems to evoke something of Richard Strauss in its harmonic textures and very definitely a whiff of early 20th-century Vienna. Whately and Middleton bring a passionate intensity to both songs, and you enjoy the more advanced harmonic moments 

Whately and Middleton follow this with two Strauss, first Befreit and then Allerseelen. The first is dark, intense and concentrated and I love the way Whately keeps the focus on the rather intense narrative. The second begins in a gently laid-back manner but grows in tension.

Next come songs by Margarete Schweikert, who was younger than Müller-Hermann, and studied with more local professors in Karlsruhe and Stuttgart. First, two songs from the 1930s, Wolke I and Totenhausen, then an undated one, Zusammen sterben, whilst the first is about the transience of a cloud the other two have a distinct atmosphere of loss and doomed love. Wolke is short, fluid and rather lovely, whilst Totenhausen seems to be somewhat Brahmsian yet with naughty moments in the harmonies. Her style is very text-based, the music moves according to meaning. The final song in this group is concentrated, stark and rather striking.

Strauss' To a Child pairs a nice simplicity of text with darkly complex harmonies, and is followed by Rückleben, 'Back to life', another one of those strange songs with a fascination with death and the afterlife, again dark and concentrated but leading to more flowing passion. Morgen, however, needs no introduction and is simply perfect.

We return to Johanna Müller-Hermann with Die stille Stadt from 1904, followed by Herbst and In memorian both of which may date from the 1920s. There is a Brahmsian folkishness to Die stille Stadt, but with complex moments in the harmonies, whilst the complexities of the chromatic melody of Herbst feels more modern. There is a remarkably lush harmony to In memoriam combined with a remarkable half-cabaret feel to the vocal line.

Margarete Schweikert's Unser haus and Die Entschlafenen may both also date from the 1920s, perhaps earlier. Both are rather intriguing in the use of harmony and create a definite sense of the striking nature of Scheikert's songs.

The recital ends with Mahler's song cycle Kindertotenlieder, written in 1901-04 and setting five of the 428 poems Friedrich Rückert obsessively wrote following the deaths of two of his children. The first song is rather thoughtful with some lovely plangent tone from Whately, the whole beautifully crafted. The second begins in a dark, stark manner, yet this is very much an intimate performance, just voice and piano. Middleton's performance, throughout the cycle, is complete in itself, we never miss the orchestra and his sensitive playing allows Whately to be remarkably daring with her vocalism and vocal colouring. The third song is lighter in texture but no less moving, whilst the lyrically flowing fourth song produces an elegant sense of melancholy which is shattered by the stormy drama in the piano opening of the final song. This is equally matched by Whately's performance, though the song ends in a quietly transparent manner. Complete magic.

This is a beautifully shaped and considered programme and for all the subject matter, the intelligent performances and the two performers' wonderful communicability make it a delight to listen to. They convey the beauty of the lesser-known songs and bring out the lovely sense of shifting harmonies and tonal instability that is characteristic of the period, the sense of being on the brink.

Johanna Müller-Hermann(1878-1941) - Wie eine Vollmondnacht
Johanna Müller-Hermann - Der Letzte Abend
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)- Befreit
Richard Strauss - Allerseelen
Margarete Schweikert (1887-1957) - Wolke I
Margarete Schweikert - Totenhausen
Margarete Schweikert - Zusammen sterben
Richard Strauss - Auf ein Kind
Richard Strauss - Rückleben
Richard Strauss - Morgen!
Johanna Müller-Hermann - Die stille Stadt
Johanna Müller-Hermann - Herbst
Johanna Müller-Hermann - In Memoriam
Margarete Schweikert - Unser Haus
Margarete Schweikert - Die Entschlafen
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) - Kindertotenlieder
Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, 25-28 February 2022
CHANDOS CHAN20177 1CD [68:19]

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