Friday, August 27, 2021

Songs for voice and fortepiano, 1790-1860

One voice and one instrument - that was the main form of (secular) music making in the western world for many centuries. During the Middle Ages trouvères and troubadours sang their own songs, accompanying themselves on a plucked or strung instrument. In the course of time, the roles of singer and accompanist were increasingly separated, as the former mostly sung songs which were composed by someone else and required an interpretation. The accompaying instrument during the renaissance was mostly a plucked instrument, such as the lute, and after the birth of the style we call 'baroque' a chordal instrument, which played a figured bass, sometimes with an added string bass. In the classical period the accompaniment started to be written out for a keyboard instrument: a harpsichord or a fortepiano. The latter was the common accompaniment of singers of songs in the romantic period. In addition, some composers wrote songs for voice and guitar, and sometimes pianoforte parts were transcribed for guitar in the interest of those who could not afford a fortepiano.

Songs for voice and keyboard were written across Europe during the classical and romantic periods, but for some reason German songs have received so much interest that the whole genre is known as the Klavierlied. If we look at the discography we find out that German songs dominate the landscape of this genre. Hardly any singer of songs with pianoforte accompaniment can avoid the songs of the likes of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Wolf, to mention just the best-known. However, even the German repertoire has more to offer than the songs of these four, as we will see later. In this blog I would like to review some recent recordings of German songs, among them some almost entirely unknown.

The first disc is devoted to a composer who contributed to all genres of his time, but whose songs are among the least-known parts of his output: Joseph Haydn [1]. Ironically, those of his songs which are his best-known, are all written on English texts, and were composed during his second stay in England in 1794/95. Here he met Anne Hunter, in whom he found a personality who was well versed in musical matters, but was also a gifted poet. At least seven, possibly eight of the twelve Original Canzonettas, which Haydn published in 1794 and 1795 respecitively, are settings of texts from her pen. Not only were these of considerably better quality than the German texts that Haydn had set previously, his settings also document a development towards a more independent keyboard part. In his early songs, the accompaniment had some traces of the baroque basso continuo practice, but in the English canzonettas voice and keyboard are much more equal partners. The keyboard part is also more closely connected to the text, in that it illustrates elements in it. These features explain why these songs are taken seriously, even by those singers who mostly focus on later repertoire. Cornelia Horak and Richard Fuller recorded the twelve canzonettas, and two separate songs, also on texts by Anne Hunter: The Spirit's song and O Tuneful Voice. Ms Horak has a voice that is well suited to this repertoire, which she uses with differentiation, and because of that the character of each song comes off pretty well. It is nice that she does not hesitate to add ornamentation. This is mostly well jusged; only in The Sailor's Song I believe she goes too far; her performance of this song is too operatic. Her English pronunciation seems alright. Richard Fuller delivers colourful performances of the keyboard part. It is disappointing that he opted for an instrument with Viennese action. Haydn undoubtedly had an English fortepiano in mind, when he composed these songs.

Whereas the English songs by Haydn can be heard now and then in recitals and are availble in a number of recordings, few music lovers (if any) may have heard songs by his contemporary Franz Xaver Sterkel (1750-1817) [2]. Even the man himself is a largely unknown quantity. It is due to the J.F.X. Sterkel Gesellschaft Aschaffenburg e.V. that he is receiving more attention these days, which has resulted in several recordings of orchestral and chamber music. Aschaffenburg was the town where Sterkel spent the last stage of his life; there he was active as court music director and Kapellmeister from 1810 onwards, until he was sent into retirement, when the town became part of Bavaria. Before that Sterkel had worked in Mainz and in Regensburg. He may be almost entirely forgotten in our time, but during his life he was famous as a keyboard virtuoso, who impressed the young Beethoven. Among his more than 700 compositions are around four hundred songs on German and Italian texts. In addition to songs for solo voice, he wrote duets, trios and quartets. One of the duets closes the disc released by Coviello Classics. It includes fourteen German songs for solo voice and pianoforte, alternately sung by Julla von Landsberg and Jan Kobow. In addition we hear two pieces on Italian texts, among them an arietta to the accompaniment of pianoforte or guitar. Moreover, Sylvia Ackermann plays one of Sterkel's piano pieces, the Fantasia Op. 45. She opted for a tangent piano; unfortunately, the booklet omits any details about this instrument as well as about the guitar, which is involved in some of the songs (played by Thomas Höhne). To what extent this is based on indications by the composer also remains a mystery; only in the case of the Italian arietta it is explicitly mentioned. Given the quality of these songs, there is every reason to welcome the release of this disc. Not only can Sterkel be considered "the herald of Franz Schubert within the field of the German lied", as Joachim Fischer states in his liner-notes, but his songs can hold their ground on their own merits. Julia von Landsberg and Jan Kobow are their ideal interpreters, who have found exactly the right approach to these songs. The accompaniment by Sylvia Ackermann and Thomas Höhne is stylistically entirely convincing. It is to be hoped that more of Sterkel's oeuvre, including his songs, will be recorded. Singers should investigate his songs, which are a valuable addition to the repertoire of the Klavierlied.

It is remarkable that only a small part of the large number of songs from the pen of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is available on disc in performances with fortepiano accompaniment. The large song cycles have been recorded a number of times, but otherwise there is a big backlog. This situation is all the more surprising, given that Schubert's songs enjoy great popularity and are performed across the world at the concert platform. Unfortunately, those singers who are exponents of historical performance practice, also largely focus on the main song cycles. From that perspective, there is every reason to welcome the disc by the Austrian tenor Daniel Johannsen, accompanied by Christoph Hammer at the fortepiano [3]. They recorded seventeen songs; I have not been able to discover a specific theme, and it remains a mystery to what criteria the songs have been selected. The texts which Schubert has set, cover a wide range of subjects, but obviously those subjects which were the favourites of romantic poets, are well represented: night and darkness, the wood, fall and winter, stars and moon, death, tomb and graveyard. Such songs are often of a rather intimate character - loudness is less appropriate here. Especially in such songs Johannsen is hard to surpass. He gives the impression to sing just for himself; the listener is allowed to eavesdrop. Among his strengths are his fine diction and his excellent treatment of the text - not surprising, given his experience in baroque repertoire, for instance in Bach's cantatas and Passions. He also effectively colours his voice in order to single out particular elements in the text. Christoph Hammer is more than an accompanist; he is Johannsen's equal partner at the fortepiano. He plays a Graf piano of around 1827, from which he draws the most gorgeous sounds and whose dynamic capabilities he fully explores, all in the interest of text expression. Voice and fortepiano blend perfectly; during the recording, the interpreters were sitting next to each other, as was common in Schubert's time. The translation of this disc's title is "unequalled songs". Unequalled are also these performances. Can we hope for more?

The three large cycles are among Schubert's most famous works. Far lesser known are the small cycles, consisting of three or four songs. The main exceptions are those which were published as cycles, for instance the Drei Gesänge des Harfners aus 'Wilhelm Meister' (D 478). There are several reasons why some cycles are not known as such. Schubert often composed such songs at differemt times and only put them together at a later date. As the songs were printed in the old complete edition in chronological order, their connection was entirely lost. That is also due to the fact that some cycles include settings of texts by different poets. And even if Schubert set texts by the same poet, the latter did not always conceived them as a cycle. Markus Schäfer and Zvi Meniker recorded six cycles [4]; at the end of this review one finds a link to a site with the track-list. Among the cycles are the Vier Refrain-Lieder Op. 95. Some of these are good examples of the interpretative approach of the two artists. They have been inspired by the way Schubert's songs were interpreted by the tenor Johann Michael Vogl, who was a great admirer of Schubert and performed many of his songs. He was generous in his addition of ornamentation, and his performances were rather theatrical, which is no wonder, given that he had made a career in opera. The songs Op. 95 are ideally suited to such an interpretation. The artists, in the liner-notes, assume that this kind of interpretation does not find universal approval. That would be not any different from Vogl's own time: his performances strongly divided the lovers of Schubert's songs. Whatever one may think of this approach: it is at least very interesting to hear Schubert's songs this way, and it is a token of courage and the willingness to leave the well-trodden paths that Schäfer and Meniker present these songs in a way which is quite different from what the lovers of Schubert's songs are used to. In this way, these performances could hardly be more 'authentic'. The choice of fortepiano - a copy of a Graf of 1819 - fits the approach of Schubert's songs. Schäfer has a very clear voice, which is perfectly suited to 19th-century songs. His diction and articulation are immaculate, and allow the listener to understand every single word, without looking at the texts in the booklet. Even so, it is a shame that it omits one stanza in each of two songs from the Op. 95 cycle. In Schäfer's performance, each distinction in the text is effectively communicated to the listener. Meniker delivers colourful and dynamically differentiated performances of the piano parts. From the angle of repertoire and of interpretation, this disc is a major addition to the Schubert discography and is not to be missed by lovers of Schubert's songs.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) discovered the genre of the Klavierlied rather late in his career. He wrote his first songs in 1840, but then he could hardly stop. 130 of his around 150 songs date from this year. For Knut Schoch and Mathias Weber, this was the reason to focus on this year, as the title of their disc indicates [5]. In 1840, Schumann wrote two major cycles: the Liederkreis Op. 39, on texts by Joseph von Eichendorff, and Dichterliebe Op. 48, on poems by Heinrich Heine. These cycles are very well-known and are available in many recordings. However, there are probably very few, in which the singer is accompanied on a historical piano. Mathias Weber plays two different Érard pianos, from 1840 and 1847 respectively. That is not the only noticeable aspect of this recording, though. The Liederkreis is followed by Der frohe Wandersmann, a song which Schumann temporarily intended to open the cycle. And then Dichterliebe is performed here in its original version. Heines cycle included twenty poems, which Schumann all set. However, as such a long cycle was expensive to print, he could not find a publisher. A printed edition was only possible after the cycle was reduced to sixteen songs and revised. This original version seems to have been hardly recorded, which makes it all the more regrettable that the booklet omits the lyrics. On the internet I could not find the lyrics of this version. Because of that it is hard to assess Schoch's interpretation and the way he treats the text. On the basis of his performance of the Liederkreis - whose texts are available on the internet and in the booklets of other recordings - I dare to say that 'interpretation' is the wrong word to describe his performance. I don't like his voice very much; I have heard him in some recordings of baroque repertoire, and most of the time he falls short of what is needed. Here he sings the texts, and that is about it. The meaning of the text does hardly come off; basically everything does sound the same way. With the means of articulation and colouring of the voice much more could have been made of these songs. Whether an Érard piano is the most obvious choice is impossible for me to decide. Fact is that Robert and Clara Schumann, during their time in Leipzig, often visited the Tröndlin workshop and that Clara loved to play one of his instruments. Tröndlin pianos link up with the tradition of Viennese piano building and produce a speechlike sound.

The piano built in 1841 by Franz Rausch, which is played by Eric Zivian at the second Schumann disc reviewed here [6], is a product of that same tradition. This recording also includes the Liederkreis Op. 29, as well as the Liederkreis Op. 24, on poems by Heinrich Heine. This disc also has something special: between these two cycles, Kyle Stegall and Eric Zivian perform five songs by Clara Schumann (1819-1896). Her oeuvre receives little attention, and that certainly goes for her songs. That is very unjustified: these songs are fine pieces which should be better known. Their inclusion on this disc is most welcome. Stegall delivers entirely idiomatic interpretations, which show that he masters the German language; he also is responsible for the English translations of the lyrics in the booklet. His pronunciation, diction and articulation are impeccable. Unlike Schoch, Stegall comes up with an interpretation and treats the texts with differentiation, according to their meaning. Both Schoch and Stegall use more vibrato than is justified, but thanks to Stegall's captivating interpretation, in his case it is less disturbing. Eric Zivian is the excellent partner at the beautiful Rausch piano.

As I already stated, only a small part of Schubert's songs are available in recordings with fortepiano accompaniment. However, all his songs are represented on disc, usually with an accompaniment of a modern concert grand. That is more than can be said about the songs of other composers of the 19th century. Schubert was one of the main composers of songs, but certainly not the only one. Many of his colleagues only a few specialists have heard of, and some of them are represented on the last disc to be reviewed here. Franz Vitzthum included a few songs by Schubert in his recital [7], but most of the songs are by little-known composers, such as Charlotte Bender, Johann Friedrich Hugo van Dalberg, Johann Vesque von Püttlingen and Josephine Caroline Lang. Also included are a song by Mendelssohn and two by his teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter, one of the better-known on this disc. And then we have two songs by Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a close friend of Schubert, who composed a series of variations on a theme from Hüttenbrenner's pen; these are played by Katharina Olivia Brand on the fortepiano in alternation with the songs. This disc is not only interesting in that it sheds light on forgotten composers, but also because it includes some settings of texts which were also known from the oeuvre of more famous masters. An example is An den Frieden by Dalberg; under this title he set the same text by Goethe as Schubert under the title of Wandrers Nachtlied. The booklet includes all the lyrics - unfortunately without English translations - as well as comprehensive information about the composers and their historical context. In the case of an interpretation by a male alto one cannot avoid the issue of authenticity. Vitzthum is not the first representative of this voice type who makes a foray into the field of romantic songs. One of the first was Paul Esswood, who recorded songs by Schumann (Hungaroton, 1989). It is good that this type of voice is now generally accepted and is not treated as an 'early music peculiarity' anymore. That said, the aim of historical performance practice is to come as close as possible to the intentions of the composer and the performance habits of his time. From that perspective it is hard to argue in favour of a male alto in performances of songs written in a time in which that type of voice did not exist anymore. That does not compromise in any way my appreciation of this disc. Vitzthum is an excellent singer, who does know how to communicate the text and its content to an audience. He does a fine job here. Katharina Olivia Brand plays a copy of a Graf piano of 1826, which is the perfect choice for this repertoire and whose features are explored to the full in the interest of an expressive interpretation. This disc offers a view into a fascinating world that is hardly explored as yet.

[1] FJ Haydn: "Britain's Glory - Joseph Haydn Canzonettas"
Cornelia Horak, soprano; Richard Fuller, fortepiano
Gramola 99212 (© 2020) details

[2] Sterkel: "Liebesbothen"
Julla von Landsberg, soprano; Jan Kobow, tenor; Sylvia Ackermann, fortepiano; Thomas Höhne, guitar
Coviello Classics COV 91809 (© 2018) details

[3] Schubert: "Lieder ohnegleichen"
Daniel Johannsen, tenor; Christoph Hammer, fortepiano
Spektral SRL4-18170 (© 2019) details

[4] Schubert: "The Small Song Cycles"
Markus Schäfer, tenor; Zvi Meniker, fortepiano
Passacaille PAS 1084 (© 2021) details

[5] Schumann: "1840 - Zyklen und Lieder"
Knut Schoch, tenor; Mathias Weber, fortepiano
Ambitus amb 95620 (© 2021) details

[6] Robert & Clara Schumann: "Myrtle & Rose - Songs by Clara and Robert Schumann"
Kyle Stegall, tenor; Eric Zivian, fortepiano
AVIE AV2407 (© 2019) details

[7] "Nachthimmel - Lieder von Schubert, Bender, Dalbert"
Franz Vitzthum, alto; Katharina Olivia Brand, fortepiano
Christophorus CHR 77452 (© 2021) details

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