Wednesday 5 July 2023

Heard in her own right: an important new disc explores Fanny Hensel's songs, focusing on the unknown and unrecorded

Fanny Hensel Lieder: Tim Parker-Langston, Jennifer Parker, Stephane Wake-Edwards, Genevieve Ellis, Jams Coleman, Ewan Gilford; First Hand Records Reviewed 4 July 2023

Fanny Hensel Lieder: Tim Parker-Langston, Jennifer Parker, Stephanie Wake-Edwards, Genevieve Ellis, Jâms Coleman, Ewan Gilford; First Hand Records
Reviewed 4 July 2023

A disc which focuses entirely on Fanny Hensel's songs, enabling us to hear many unpublished and unrecorded ones in enjoyably subtle performances from six young artists

Whilst the name of Fanny Hensel (Felix Mendelssohn's elder sister) is not unknown as a composer, her music is still relatively rare on concert platform and on disc, and when we do hear her works it tends to be in the context of her brother's output. She very rarely gets a chance to be heard in her own right, and it is only relatively recently that thanks to the internet (notably and that the full extent of her songs have been easily available to singers. Over 100 of her songs have remained unpublished and unrecorded, and the majority of her 450 compositions remain unheard and unseen.

Tenor Tim Parker-Langston began a PhD studying Hensel's lieder at Goldsmith's University of London in 2021, and it is Parker-Langston who created and now all 239 of her songs are available. An extension of this, is the new disc from First Hand Records on which Tim Parker-Langston is joined by mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Parker and Stephanie Wake-Edwards and pianists Genevieve Ellis, Jâms Coleman and Ewan Gilford for a recital of 34 of Hensel's song including 17 first recordings. The disc was recorded in the Gartenhaus of the Mendelssohn-Haus Museum in Leipzig, a room that Fanny Hensel would have known.

Parker-Langston argues in his booklet note that part of the problem with Hensel's songs is that publishers and performers tend to select those that align more closely with those of her brother and his contemporaries rather than considering Hensel's own voice. During Felix's lifetime, any songs that she had published were under his name or anonymous, it was only in 1846 that she drew enough confidence to publish a collection of songs as her Opus 1.

Fanny Mendelssohn, sketched in 1829 by Wilhelm Hensel
Fanny Mendelssohn, sketched in 1829 by Wilhelm Hensel
Parker-Langston sings the majority of the songs, with Wake-Edwards singing 10 and Jennifer Parker three. It is very much Parker-Langston's project, he is co-producer of the disc.

The songs are arranged chronologically, so we begin with Fanny aged 15, and perhaps this is not the best place to start, but when we reach the Ludwig Tieck setting, Abschied from the mid-1820s then you get more a sense of her distinctive voice. Her style seems to be built around expressive vocal writing, there is not a lot of sturm und drang, instead a profound susceptibility to the words and melding these with quite subtle inflections of the vocal line.

When the album moves to the year 1827, there is a definite sophisticated voice here, and the group of Hölty settings are particularly fine. And is it a coincidence that so many of the songs are called Longing (Sehnsucht); for all her husband's support, Fanny's musical life was limited. She was reckoned a pianist good enough to have had a public career yet her sex, religion and station in life mitigated against this. The young Clara Wieck was trained from an early age for a public career by her musician father, the young Fanny Mendelssohn was made to realise that music, for her, could only ever by a polite entertainment. It seems to have taken her a long time to build up her confidence. 

She does not push boundaries by searching out the outré, but it is clear that her music is more complex than it can appear at first sight. What she does is take the typical lyrical romantic song suitable for private performance and gently and imaginatively adjust and alter, the piano accompaniments being far more rewarding to listen to than you might at first expect.

By the time we reach the end of the recital, with the Lenau setting, Vorwuf (Reproach) which Felix published in her posthumous Op.10, it is clear that this is a significant song-writing talent. We should not listen to this recital noting what Fanny Hensel is not, or regretting what she was not able to achieve. Instead we should celebrate her sympathetic, lyrical and subtle talents as a song-writer. These are not delicately fragile songs, they don't need their own special hot house, and we should be grateful to Tim Parker-Langston for bringing them to the fore. All six performers respond to the subtleties in her songs and this makes an enjoyably satisfying listen, over and above the novelty and delight of discovering Hensel's songs.

Fanny Hensel (1805-1847) - Lieder
Tim Parker-Langston (tenor)
Jennifer Parker (mezzo-soprano)
Stephanie Wake-Edwards (mezzo-soprano)
Genevieve Ellis (piano)
Jâms Coleman (piano)
Ewan Gilford (piano)
Recorded at the Mendelssohn-Haus Leipzig, 3-8 January 2022
First Hand Records FHR148 1CD [82.25]

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