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Program Notes: Ema Nikolovska

Mezzo-soprano Eva Nikolovska has curated an intriguing recital program of songs composed in the forty years between 1865 and 1905, a selection that highlights the changing styles of music emanating from three important centres of music-making.

From Vienna there are the contrasting voices of the traditionalist Brahms and his aesthetic adversary Hugo Wolf, from France the varied sound-pictures of Debussy and Ravel, and from Boston a small sample of the astonishing output of the first successful American female composer, Amy Beach.

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Johannes Brahms
Wie Melodien zieht es mir  Op. 105 No. 1
Lerchengesang  Op. 70 No. 2
Der Gang zum Liebchen  Op. 48 No. 1
Ständchen  Op. 106 No. 1

Brahms’ compositional concern with structure and form made him a leading proponent of absolute (i.e., non-programmatic) music, and thus an unlikely contributor to 19th-century European art song, with its story-driven texts and pictorial modes of expression. And yet from his early twenties to his final years Brahms was a prolific composer for the human voice, publishing no less than 190 lieder for solo voice and piano, now staples of the recital repertoire, as well as numerous works for other vocal ensembles.

Like his instrumental works, Brahms’ lieder feature diatonic melodies supported by a strong contrapuntally-conceived bass-line that structures functional (not coloristic) harmonies. But his overriding ideal is really the direct expressiveness and guileless simplicity of traditional folksong which he imbues with an elegance of construction designed to please his audience of Viennese amateur singers. While written for an indoor urban audience, the aesthetic frame of reference of Brahms’ lieder, as with his Hungarian Dances, is the wide outdoors and the life of the country village.

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Wie Melodien zieht es mir (It moves like a melody) features a teasingly abstract text, with a recurring reference to an unexplained “it” (es) that periodically moves the singer but the feeling doesn’t last. “It” wafts away like scent (Duft) when melody calls “it” forth. “It” vanishes like the greyness of mist (Nebelgrau) when captured in words or print. Only in the germinating bud (Keime) of lyrical poetry (Reime) is “it” (the poet’s message) revealed to the moistened eye of the receptive soul. A continuous flow of 8th notes in the piano accompaniment and constant small inflections in the harmony express both the singer’s free flow of thoughts and the way those thoughts evaporate soon after they appear.  The piano’s cascading arpeggios most often move in contrary motion to the melody line, as does the bass line, in keeping with good contrapuntal practice.

Lerchengesang (Song of the larks) is utterly magical in the vividness of its tonal imagery. The “ethereal distant voices” (ätherische ferne Stimmen) of the lark’s song, brilliantly evoked by a delicate two-note figure in the high treble of the piano, envelop the singer in a delicate haze of remembering as she closes her eyes to recall twilights “pervaded with the breath of spring” (durchweht vom Frühlingshauche). The splendid isolation of the singer’s musings is highlighted by intermittent silences from the lark (i.e., piano), allowing the melody line to suddenly stand out alone. The separate realities of the bird and its solitary listener are conveyed in cross-rhythms, with four 8th notes in the piano matched against triplet quarter notes in the singer’s melodic line.

Der Gang zum Liebchen (The walk to the beloved’s home) is an actual folk song text that Brahms found in a collection of  Deutsche Volkslieder and his setting is eminently folksong-like in its use of recurring rhythmic patters and melodic motives. The text describes the worries of a lover as he makes his way to the home of his beloved, tortured by anxious thoughts of her unfaithfulness or even her death, all under the watchful eye of the moon. The flickering changes in mode between minor and major reflect the lightning mood swings of the quickly pacing lover, but there is a fair bit of irony at play, as well.  The piano’s dance-like accompaniment (reminiscent of the famous accelerating passage of Chopin’s C# minor waltz Op. 64 No. 2) might easy represent the lover’s racing thoughts, but equally well conveys the piano’s twinkling sly suggestion that he frets for nothing because merriment aplenty awaits him upon his arrival.

Ständchen (Serenade) presents a very realistic depiction of a natural setting, with the moon shining brightly onto the mountainside, as three students play a serenade with a pretty girl nearby as their audience. Their instruments are a flute, a fiddle and a zither, the strumming of which is evident from the crisp arpeggiated chords of the piano’s opening.  We, as listeners, are witnesses to this scene, hearing how the pretty girl floats off into a reverie — to swirling piano figuration in the middle section. She daydreams of her fair-haired lover, whispering to him “Forget me not!” (Vergiss nicht mein) just before she wakes up with the final “zither strum” from the piano.

 

Amy Beach

Ich sagte nicht  Op. 51 No. 1

Three Browning Songs  Op. 44
The Year’s at the Spring
Ah Love but a Day!
I Send my Heart up to Thee

Amy Beach was the first American woman to achieve widespread professional success as a composer of art music. Born Amy Marcy Cheney in 1867, she displayed prodigious talent while young as both a pianist and composer. At 18 she married Dr.  Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a wealthy Boston surgeon some 25 years her senior, and henceforth published under the name “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach”. Comfortable in the large-scale forms of orchestral, choral and chamber music, she was best known for the 117 songs for solo voice and piano that she published between 1880 and 1941.

Her harmonic idiom was the chromatic language of late Romanticism, with Liszt and Wagner as major influences, and her scores feature a wealth of chromatically altered chords and expressive modulations. She was particularly adept at creating restless, long melodic lines smouldering with lyrical intensity and crowned with impassioned climaxes. As an idealistic Victorian of Wagnerian sensibilities, she was acutely sensitive to the voluptuousness of music, but aimed to use it for a higher societal purpose. Impervious to the violent cross-currents of cultural upheaval transforming the early 20th century, she persisted throughout her career to believe that “the true mission of music is to uplift.”

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The German text of Ich sagte nicht (I didn’t say) from 1903 paints the scene of two lovers blissfully staring into each other eyes, neither of them thinking or needing to say “I love you” (Ich liebe dich). Mrs. Beach’s Wagnerian inspiration is clear from the score’s creeping chromatic voice-leading and long appoggiaturas that recall a similar love-delirium in Tristan und Isolde.

In The Year’s at the Spring, the first of Three Browning Songs (1900), the heaving bosom of a Victorian matron bubbles over with excitement at the change of seasons, symbolized in a continuous chatter of piano triplets, while ecstatic upward leaps of a 4th in the melody line lead in mounting excitement to the famous concluding line: “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!”

A more serious note is struck in Ah Love but a Day, which deals with the subject of a wife’s distress at her husband’s losing interest in their marriage. The soulful pining quality of the melodic line as the song opens evokes the kind of wistful pathos that Gershwin would later incorporate into Porgy & Bess. But minor turns to major in the second half of the song as hope springs eternal in the breast of a faithful wife, musing over the thought: “The world has changed, look in my eyes, wilt thou change, too?”  The very last phrase, with its melody line intoning an unchanging 5th note of the scale, is a brilliant touch of dramatic tone-craft.

The rapture of true love returns in the third song of the set, I Send my Heart up to Thee! with a surging piano accompaniment that paints the welling up of tender feelings in the singer’s heart and the waves of the sea that symbolize these emotions in the text.

 

Claude Debussy

Trois chansons de Bilitis 

In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to drum up enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality – a fin de siècle fascination of the time – he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho from the famously girl-friendly isle of Lesbos.  I undressed to climb a tree – writes Bilitis, in a mood for sharing as she voluptuates in her own contours – my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.

The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897-1898. Using modal scales, especially the Lydian mode with its raised 4th degree, he paints a vivid sonic picture of the ancient world, setting this trio of poems in free-floating speech-like declamation, the melody line often sitting on a single pitch or moving in small intervals. His harmonies are impressionistic, sometimes based on the whole-tone scale, with parallel 5ths in the bass a frequent device for rapidly shifting tone colours.

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La Flûte de Pan (Pan’s flute) presents a scene that Mrs. Beach would hardly consider edifying. As the piano imitates a relaxed strumming of the strings of a lyre, a young woman, who has carelessly let slip her belt, wanders off wide-eyed, alone and belt-less, into a lush natural setting to look for it. There she meets a young man of pedagogical inclinations who kindly offers her a place on his knees for a kind of lap-dance music lesson so that she might learn to play his syrinx, or pan pipes. The wax that binds together the stiff reeds of the instrument, she notes in passing, is as sweet as honey on her lips. In a bid to improve her embouchure, the young man joins her in blowing into the instrument and the two of them remain cheek-to-cheek until their lips meet. As the evening draws on, frogs from a nearby pond are heard in the piano accompaniment, lending a chorus of amphibian approval to the young girl’s sexual awakening.

In La Chevelure (The Tresses of hair) the piano intones a blurry ostinato, preparing us to hear the viewpoint of the young man himself. He has had a dream, he tells the young woman, in which her tresses had coiled round him like a necklace, and mouth-to-mouth they had been united, like two laurel trees that share a single root. (The piano accompaniment perks up considerably here and rises to a surging climax.)  Untangling their limbs as they recover from this insight into forest ecology, the pace slows, the piano returns to the dream-like pulsing of the opening, and it’s all over but for the tender staring into each other’s eyes.

Le Tombeau des naïades (The Tomb of the naiads) commemorates the death of the mythological gods of the forest. A winter frost has overtaken the landscape as the young woman wanders in a daze, her hair caked with icicles and her sandals laden with snow.  The young man informs her that the cloven footprints of the satyrs she is following lead nowhere. The satyrs are all dead, and with them the nymphs who once frolicked nearby. (An echo of their laughter is heard in the piano accompaniment.) Breaking off a piece of ice from the now-frozen spring, he holds it up to gaze through it at the paleness of the sky.

 

Hugo Wolf
Nachtzauber
Nimmersatte Liebe
Auf einer Wanderung

Hugo Wolf  brought a new level of expressive intensity to the German lied. Obsessed with making his musical setting correspond to the poetic text in every dimension – melodic contour, harmonic colouring, voice-piano relationship, etc. – he stands as a miniaturist adherent to the Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) ideal of Wagner, whom he adored, and a precursor to similar experiments in ‘absolute control’ carried out by serialist composers in the early 20th century.

In little more than 20 years he contributed a unique body of songs to the repertoire, grouped for the most part in collections focusing on a single poet or a single anthology of folk poems. His settings expanded the psychological dimensions of these texts but often went far beyond the intentions or even imaginings of the original poets.

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Nachtzauber (Night magic) comes from a collection of poems by Germany’s pre-eminent Romantic poet of nature Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), whose recurring themes of wandering, nostalgic longing, and the passage of time are reflected in the text. Eichendorff paints a night-world made magical by an awareness of its mysteries. These he itemizes with a sense of awakening wonder tinted with intimations of the sublime.

A burbling spring is evoked by a murmuring ostinato in the piano as the song opens, an ostinato that will remain an unsettling presence in the harmonic texture throughout, despite a bass-line that often supports the melody with the standard moves of functional harmony. The singer’s melody line wanders chromatically in dream-like fashion, sensually describing the scene: the solitary marble statues beside the lake, the wondrous gleam of the valley as night falls – sights that prompt memories of flowers “that blossomed in the moonlit valley,” and the song of nightingales. But the pain of love is recalled as well, and the steady march of time. The song ends nevertheless in ecstatic defiance of all that has come before: Komm, o komm zum stillen Grund! (Come, oh come to the silent valley!)

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Another collection of Wolf songs sets the poems of Eduard Mörike (1804–75), a Lutheran minister and utterly unclassifiable German poet with a list of literary interests that included erotic poetry. Mörike’s Nimmersatte Liebe (Insatiable love) is not the sort of thing on which to base a Sunday sermon. Indeed, its sado-masochistic text would quite likely require the application of smelling salts to the fainting frame of Mrs. Beach, should she find herself in the pews listening to spiritual guidance of this kind.

The playful opening gestures in the piano establish a tone of mischievous mockery before the singer introduces us to the notion that trying to satisfy Love with kisses is like trying to fill up a sieve with water. For such is Love (So ist die Lieb’). To the syncopated off-beat interjections of the piano accompaniment, the singer allows as how kisses lead to bites until, like a lamb to the slaughter (Wie’s Lämmlein unter’m Messer), the girl’s eyes will say (with a dramatic octave leap downwards in the melody line): “Do go on, the more it hurts the better!” (nur immer zu, / Je weher, desto beßer!).

The song closes with the self-justifying thought that even wise King Solomon made love this way, to a musical setting that Wolf himself described as “a right old student’s song, damned merry.” While Mörike might well have been sending up these laddish sentiments in his poem, we can’t really be sure of Wolf, whose first sexual experience in a brothel when he was 18 gave him the syphilis that eventually drove him insane, and resulted in his early death at the age of 42 in 1903.

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There is no doubt, however, of the sincerity of the joyous sentiments expressed in the last Wolf song in this recital, his setting of Mörike’s Auf einer Wanderung (On a walk).  Here a pleasure-seeking hiker passes through a small town, its “streets aglow in the red evening light” (In den Strassen liegt roter Abendschein).  From across the rich array of flowers on a window sill comes a voice like a choir of nightingales (Und eine Stimme schient en Nachtigallenchor). With a spring in his step and utterly besotten, he leaves through the town gate, his heart stirred by the Muse with a breath of love (O Muse, du hast mein Herz berührt / Mit einem Leibeshauch!)

Numerous colourful modulations document the miraculous changes in mood of the visitor as he passes through town. The piano’s joyous skippy accompaniment, as in many of Wolf’s songs, lives in a completely separate world from that of the singer, but one that nonetheless here complements the singer’s experience perfectly.

 

Maurice Ravel
Histoires Naturelles 

The 1907 premiere of Ravel’s nature documentary in music about four birds and an insect was an outright scandal. A major part of the pearl-clutching was occasioned by Ravel’s defiance of tradition in setting to music the prose poems of Jules Renard’s Les Histoires naturelles (1896) rather than choosing  verse poetry from the French literary canon. Setting fans even faster aflutter, he had abandoned the aristocratic rules of pronunciation according to which a silent ‘e’ at the end of a word was considered a separate syllable, as it is, for example, in the French version of O Canada: Ter-re de nos aïeux. This, to the French salon set, sounded like the language of the street, or worse, the musical hall.

Renard’s lighthearted anthropomorphizing of common wildlife makes delightful reading, and even more delightful listening in Ravel’s wittily conversational renderings. While caricaturing the poses and manners of these animals, the composer still retains a measure of sympathy for the guileless sincerity with which they live out their lives.

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Le Paon (Peacock) is blissfully ignorant of how silly he looks as he gets stood up at the altar, still dressed in all his finery. Ravel doubles down on the humour by giving him a strutting French overture kind of piano accompaniment, as if he were Louis XIV, the Sun King himself.

The busy housekeeping chores undertaken by Le Grillon (Cricket), magically evoked by Ravel’s clockwork ticking accompaniment, make him out to be so adorable, you just want to pet him.

The pictorial representation of water, a trademark of impressionist musical imagery, is brilliantly accomplished in Le Cygne (Swan).

Le Martin-Pêcheur (Kingfisher) is the only one of the set in which the human is the animal being observed, wondrously captivated by the appearance of a wild bird on the end of his fishing rod.

La Pintade (Guinea fowl) is hilariously painted as the bully of the aviary world, disturbing every other creature with its loud cackling and enforcing its own pecking order on surrounding hens and turkeys.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2021

 

Program Notes: Ian Bostridge with Wenwen Du

Gustave Mahler

Three Des Knaben Wunderhorn Songs

The collection of German folk poetry published between 1805 and 1808 under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) had an enormous influence on the development of German lyric poetry and song in the 19th century, and the artless simplicity of these verses was particularly attractive to Gustav Mahler. Over half of his solo songs derive from this collection, many in both chamber and orchestral versions, and some even found their way into his symphonies, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Symphonies in particular.

Growing up in the Moravian garrison town of Jihlava, Mahler heard a great deal of military music when young and a number of his settings reflect his early fascination with this kind of music. There is, however, a tragic undertow in the military songs he chose to set from the Wunderhorn collection. Their mood is sombre, occasionally even macabre. They glint with an irony that pays tribute to the dark subtext lying beneath their childlike surface of story-telling.

Revelge (Reveille) marches to the tramping beat of a drummer wounded in battle who rouses the mortal remains of his fallen comrades to a ghastly advance against the foe. The mock-gleeful refrain of tralali, tralaley underscores the eerie ‘esprit de corpse’ of this grotesque procession.

Der Tamboursg’sell (The drummer boy) features another doomed drummer, this time marching to the gallows for the crime of desertion. Regular drum rolls mark the pace of this funeral procession while major-minor alternations in the harmony give voice to the boy’s wavering psychological state.

Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the splendid trumpets sound) is a variant of the medieval Tagelied, depicting the reluctant separation of lovers at dawn. Distant trumpet fanfares symbolize the soldier’s call of duty but the “green heath” of battle he must hasten to will be his new home, in death.

 

Rudi Stephan

Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied

The death of the promising 28-year-old composer-turned-soldier Rudi Stephan, victim of a sniper’s bullet on the Eastern Front, is one of the great losses that WWI inflicted on Western music. His song collection Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) sets poems by Gerda von Robertus, the pseudonym of Gertrud Emily von Schlieben (1873-1939). Hohelied is the German term for the Song of Solomon and Stephan’s sultry and sensual settings attempt to express the power of love as both spiritual and erotic, in imitation of the Biblical text.

These songs, with their simple piano accompaniments, are exquisite miniatures that move forward in unhurried waves of emotion, luminously depicting in gently dissonant but firmly tonal harmonies the bittersweet yearning and imaginative wanderings of the lover’s heart.

The background strumming of the ancient lyre and the rippling of the ocean waves can be heard in the piano part of Kythere (Cythera), that describes a voyage to the perfume-scented isle of the love-goddess Venus. The pouncing potential of the lover-as-panther can be heard in the jumpy rhythms of Pantherlied (Panther song). Infinite delicacy in both the voice and piano parts of Abendfrieden (Evening peace) evokes the stillness of the twilight hours.

The mysterious exoticism of In Nachbars Garten (In the neighbours garden) paints the painful joy of witnessing love from afar. The steady pace of Glück zu Zweien counts the steps of a pair of lovers climbing ever higher to take in the vistas that their own togetherness presents to them. And finally, the unearthly stillness of Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied (I want to sing you a high song) evokes night as the geographic centre of love’s domain.

 

George Butterworth

A Shropshire Lad

Many a British soldier in the Great War carried with him to the front a copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and the attraction would be easy to see. The poems in this collection by Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896, were written in the straightforward language of the English farmer, laid out in the simple rhythmic patterns of English folk song. They present an idealized picture of country life, used as a lens through which to view the harsh realities of war and death. The stark fatalism of these poems, studded with their nostalgic reminders of home, would have appealed to those living in the trenches in France, many of them destined to be, in Housman’s casually chilling phrase, “lads that will never be old.”

George Butterworth, a graduate of Eton, Oxford, and the Royal College of Music, was killed in the Great War. A few years before the outbreak of hostilities, he composed two sets of songs to the poems in this collection, the first of which we will hear this evening. These settings give pride of place to the voice, to which the piano offers an extremely sparse accompaniment, with many modal turns

of harmony that evoke a folk-song-like style of expression. None more so than the last and most celebrated song of the set, Is my team ploughing?, an almost speech-like rendering in dialogue of the meeting between a dead soldier’s ghost and his best friend, still alive, who is reluctant to reveal with whose sweetheart he now lays down at night.

 

Kurt Weill

Four Walt Whitman Settings

Kurt Weill is best known for his hit tune “Mack the Knife” from The Threepenny Opera, which he composed in collaboration with Bertold Brecht in 1928 as reworking of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera of 1728. As a successful Jewish composer of stage music he came to the attention of the Nazi regime and was forced to flee in 1933. He eventually settled in New York in 1935, where he took to his new home with relish and began to write for the Broadway stage.

Immediately after Pearl Harbour, he set to work on a contribution to the war effort: composing songs to texts by the American poet Walt Whitman. Three Whitman songs were completed in 1942. A fourth was added in 1947. All four deal with the most compelling event of Whitman’s time, the American Civil War.

Beat! Beat! Drums! is a vigorous call to battle that Weill sets as a stomping march in a modernist idiom very close to the polemical style of his earlier theatre works.

O Captain! My Captain! is Whitman’s tribute to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Its style is definitely Broadway, which gives this lament an all-the-more common touch as a tribute piece.

Come up from the Fields, Father tells the story of the arrival of a letter from the army to tell a family that their only son is dead. The fulsome piano accompaniment gives this tragic scene its full measure of dignity.

Dirge for Two Veterans commemorates the death of a father and son in the same battle, juxtaposing the beauty of a landscape at dusk with the sense of loss that these twin deaths brings. In painting the scene, Weill gives each sentiment a different harmonic colouring.

 

Benjamin Britten

Four Songs from Who Are These Children Op. 84

Scottish poet William Soutar (1898-1943) wrote poetry in Scots dialect in his poems for children, and in standard English in his more serious verse. Benjamin Britten used both kinds of poems by Soutar in his Who Are These Children, a work that jarringly contrasts the wide-eyed innocence of childhood with the destructive power of war. It is this latter power, the power to destroy, that occupies the four songs in standard English from this song cycle being presented by Mr. Bostridge and Ms. Du this evening.

Nightmare is ostensibly about the chopping down of a tree by “a dark shape,” but its symbolic resonance is much more powerful. Britten paints the tree’s dreamlike existence in the piano’s right-hand ostinato figures, the “murderer” of that dream in ominously low left-hand octaves.

Slaughter pits the voice, struggling to tell its tale, against a restless toccata- chatter of piano cuts and thrusts ranging widely over the keyboard, emblematic of the disconnect between the power to destroy and the power of bearing witness to that destruction. This is a scene in which “wise men are made dumb.”

Who are these children? paints a country scene as absurd as it is gallingly immoral: an elegant fox-hunting party rides through town on horseback during a world war that sees bombs falling on cities. Britten first paints the prancing procession of rich folk before switching his musical sympathies to the children onlookers, recently escaped from “fire and smoke,” whose uncomprehending stare sums up the poet’s indignation.

An eerie calm pervades The Children, a song that pictures the bodies of children lying in the streets after a bombing raid. The world seems unconcerned, and “the stars move to their places” as if nothing unusual had happened. Britten’s use of a rippling ostinato figure in the treble of the piano part represents the moral bewilderment that such a horrific scene would provoke in any thinking person.

 

Donald G. Gíslason 2016

Getting to know baritone Christian Gerhaher

Christian Gerhaher on the origins on German Lied (song):
The German Lied was born into quite special circumstances. The composer found himself creating something with no pre-existing format, which in practical performance terms was restricted to a quite intimate situation, which will later become the famous Schubertiade. That means it had a more social than an artistic significance.

On performing:
I mostly perform German language songs, and in doing so have developed an idea of combining the expression of pronounced text and sung music into a personal, meaningful sound.

On favourite composers:
Schubert, Schumann and Mahler – all three in general for their faithful way of combining music and text in an authentic synthesis – all of them in a personal way.

Schubert was not only the great founder of the Lied as a musical category. He displayed in his large oeuvre an immense variety of micro-styles, all deriving from a true and honest attempt to execute the intuition that Schubert seems to have derived from reading a poem. A very special miracle that I notice constantly throughout his multi-faceted oeuvre is that Schubert treats very good poems with the greatest distinction and delicacy. He does not seem to add too much new or of his own to a perfect poem. On the other hand, he really seems to be able to ennoble weak poems, of which he set not a few.

Schumann is my personal favourite (not only as a song composer). Performing his works I like especially his trend-setting innovation of giving at least equal weight to the piano part. I also admire, as I do with Hugo Wolf, his highly delicate and quality-conscious selection of texts. I admire and feel touched by his radical artistic genius.

On Deitrich Fischer-Dieskau:
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in my view, established Lieder-singing as a kind of vocal chamber music. This achievement should not be underestimated (I think this maybe was one of his main merits). The history of Lieder performances reveals an always strongly private and emotional orientation. I would even say that such an approach to singing and interpreting this literature leads to the danger of group sentimentality,

Fischer-Dieskau’s method was, first of all, to take the composer’s intentions seriously. He dispensed, for example, with the tendency to select particular pieces from an entire song-cycle. Secondly, he sang this literature with a well-known, superb technique that combined perfect pronunciation with a helpful, bright voice-colour.

On influential singers:
[Of course,] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There was another Lieder singer. His work and not only for me, is a true, dear treasure. Fritz Wunderlich was a wonderful singer. He was and is an inspiration for singers many and varied. His timbre is a perfect example of how much imagination and will are sable to influence the quality and aesthetic value of singing.

LEILA GETZ: ONE OF THE MOST PERFECT CONCERT EXPERIENCES OF MY LIFE

 

Last night I had one of the most perfect concert experiences of my life. I have been attending a conference of music managers and presenters in Budapest. I discovered that baritone Christian Gerhaher was singing an all-Schubert song recital in the Vienna Konzerthaus. It was sold out, but after 33 years in the concert presenting world, I was able to pull strings and, to my utter astonishment, I became a guest of the Konzerthaus. So, I hopped on a train and headed back to Vienna (where I’d been just the week before) to hear the performance. The distance between Vienna and Budapest seems similar to the distance between Vancouver and Seattle. Except that, of course, one just sails through borders from one country to the next.

The Konzerthaus was packed to overflowing. There were 750 seats filled in the hall with an additional 50 seats on stage. I know this because I asked the Intendant of the Konzerthaus. I also enquired about their wonderful piano and he told me that they select and rent a new Steinway from the factory every two years.

I am guilty of over-using the word “extraordinary”, but there is simply no other word to describe Gerhaher’s voice (or voices, as he seems to have so many of them). He inhabits the text and the music he is singing. He simply delivered what Schubert intended when he wrote the songs. Nothing more and nothing less. His regular pianist is Gerold Huber and the two of them together are as one. Right down to the tiniest nuance. I can understand why Andras Schiff has chosen to invite Gerhaher to Carnegie Hall for his “Perspectives” Series. And of course, we, at the VRS are the beneficiaries of this collaboration. We jumped at the opportunity when we heard about it.

If you are a serious, discerning music lover you must not miss the Gerhaher/Schiff performance at the Chan on May 14. Don’t expect a larger than life personality like Bryn Terfel (nothing wrong with him!) but expect the most perfect delivery of song you will experience for many, many years to come. It is both deeply gratifying and humbling at the same time.

Leila (en route from Vienna to Budapest).

Program Notes: Christian Gerhaher and Andras Schiff

Ludwig van Beethoven
An die ferne Geliebte
Adelaide, Op. 46

An die ferne Geliebte, composed in 1816, stands proudly at the beginning of Christian Gerhaher’s recital as the first important song cycle from any composer, that is,  a series of songs in which the constituent numbers are linked together by a theme or narrative of some sort to form a cohesive whole. The six songs of An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) are set to poems by a minor poet named Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858). A solitary lover seated on a hillside gazes into the distance and longs for the object of his affection. The lover’s thoughts turn to blue mountains (the second song), a brook (the third), clouds (the fourth) and the glories of springtime in May (the fifth) as he thinks of love filtered through these images of pure, unspoiled nature. The final song brings the listener full cycle, with passages of both text and music from the opening stanza returning for a fulfilling close. The songs are heard without breaks, and piano transitions link some of them. The cycle is further unified by a tonal scheme centered around E-flat major.

“Adelaide,” which closes the program, was Beethoven’s first important song and dates from 1795 or 1796, about the time he was writing his first piano trios and piano sonatas. The text is by Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831), a much admired German poet in his day. The song is an expansive, impassioned outpouring of emotion as a man wanders about a garden and sees in his beloved Adelaide as a manifestation of the beauties of nature.

Robert Schumann
Dichterliebe, Op. 48

Schumann composed more than half of his total song output in a single year, 1840. His love affair with Clara Wieck, who was to become his wife in August, provided fertile soil for serious attention to love lyrics. Concurrently, Schumann was beginning to recognize that the larger musical forms (symphony, sonata, string quartet) were not developing in the direction he had expected, and he was prepared to look elsewhere for the full flowering of romantic music. This “elsewhere” became the Lied (song in German). Furthermore, Schumann recognized that the piano could play a highly significant role to play in vocal music – not mere accompaniment, but an equal partner.

Schumann composed Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love) in the space of about a week in May. In these sixteen songs, Schumann perfectly captures the psychological atmosphere of each poem. The piano writing, as in Schubert, is of great importance in defining the mood of each song. In Schumann, these moods are often carried to their greatest expressive heights in the piano postludes. All but two of the Dichterliebe songs end with postludes, some of them nearly half the length of the song itself. Another remarkable aspect of these songs is the vocal declamation. The music, with few exceptions, is perfectly welded to the words of the text with regard to metre, observation of punctuation and emphasis on the right word or syllable.

In the opening song, beautiful weather, flowers and birds are all part of the poet’s blissful reverie on love. But this love affair is doomed from the beginning, and the cycle traces a progression of regret, pleading, reconciliation and forgiveness. By the final song, the poet is so disconsolate that he prepares to drown his love, his sorrows and his dreams in a coffin in the deep sea.

Robert Schumann
Gesänge des harfners

The nine songs of 98a are all settings of lyric poems drawn from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1821/1829). Schumann undertook these settings in 1849, the centenary of Goethe’s birth. Of the nine songs, four are sung by the mysterious waif Mignon, one by the promiscuous actress Philene and four (the even-numbered ones) by the Harper, an itinerant musician and a strange, confused, half-crazy, tragic figure who turns out to be Mignon’s father (the mother was the Harper’s sister), though neither character learns this traumatizing fact until late in the novel. One can surmise already that the story is filled with repression, frustration, loneliness, bitterness, withdrawal and skeletons in the closet. So too are the Harper’s songs, aside from the opening Ballad, which he sings “with free, declamatory expression” (as Schumann marked in the score) before a royal gathering.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Five Songs

Haydn was almost fifty before he first turned his attention to song. The reason for this late start is simple: he had had no requests or impetus to write anything of this type. But in 1781 he brought out a set of twelve, some of which were expressly meant to show a certain Leopold Hofmann, Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (Haydn referred to him as a “braggart”) that Haydn could do a much better job at setting the same texts than Hofmann. A second set of twelve followed a few years later. These early songs in German reflect the simple melodic and harmonic style of the Singspiel (German-language stage works with spoken dialogue interspersed with tuneful, folklike songs) and are always strophic in design (two or more verses set to the same music.)

Not until 1794-95, during his second London visit, did Haydn return to song-writing. Again, he produced twelve (this time two sets of six each, published in 1797). These are the English Canzonettas. Here the writing is more chromatic, there is more ornamentation, and the emotional range is greater. “The Wanderer,” for example, is a gloomy but beautifully etched setting of an Anne Hunter poem, with the image of wandering unmistakably portrayed in the piano. “Content” is the only one of the five Haydn songs on this program in a major key and the only one not concerned with loss, despair, death or the afterlife.

“The Spirit’s Song,” is a single, independent number Haydn wrote to another text by his London friend Anne Hunter. Stark in tone, dark in color, its text concerned with lonely ghosts, “The Spirit’s Song” nearly takes on the feeling of a dramatic recitative from an opera.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

 

Rodion Pogossov: Programme Notes

Alessandro Stradella: “Pietà, Signore”Pogossov

Orphaned at the age of eleven, Alessandro Stradella went on to lead one of the most colourful lives of any composer who ever lived. He was involved in Mafiaesque schemes, had a reputation for womanizing, got himself wounded by pursuing avengers, and was eventually murdered. In between all this he found time to compose. Alas, the only piece by Stradella that has his name attached to it, and that has any degree of circulation today, “Pietà, Signore” (a heart-rending plea to the Lord for mercy in suffering), was actually written by someone else,  possibly the Italian Rossini, possibly the Belgian historian-theorist-composer François Joseph Fétis, or possibly the Swiss-born composer and pedagogue Louis Niedermeyer.

George Frederick Handel: “Ombra mai fù”

The recitative and aria from Handel’s light and elegant opera Serse (or Xerxes, London, 1738), “Frondi tenere e belle … Ombra mai fù,” is not only the most famous number from Serse, but it may well be the most famous vocal number from any of Handel’s forty-plus operas. In mock-heroic terms, Xerxes, King of Persia addresses an affectionate tribute to the foliage of a plane-tree in the garden of his residence at Abydos, located on the southern shore of the Hellespont.

Antonio Cesti: “Si mantiene il mio amor”

Antonio Cesti’s life was scarcely less tumultuous than Stradella’s. Like Vivaldi, he trained for the priesthood. However, he couldn’t keep his hands off the ladies, and in 1658 got himself released from his vows. Rumour has it that he died by poisoning. Most of his output was for voice, and his magnum opus was the huge, five-act, 24-scene opera Il pomo d’oro (The Golden Apple), produced in 1667 on the occasion of a royal wedding.

“Si mantiene il mio amor” is a dolorous aria from Cesti’s first opera Alessando, vincitor di se stesso (Venice, 1651). It is sung by Efestione, a general in the army of Alexander the Great. Efestione is in love with Campaspe, but he has been promised to Alexander’s sister Cina, and he dares not risk offending the powerful Alexander. “My love survives on pain, sorrow and distress,” he sings. “I love, even without hope.”

Samuel Barber: “Un cygnet”

While many other composers of the mid-twentieth century were jumping on bandwagons, afraid to be left behind by the latest fad, ism or experiment, Samuel Barber remained true to his inner conviction of writing music founded on tonal centers, emotional expression and traditional values. His music breathes lyricism, heartfelt emotions, nostalgia, and, in some cases, highly dramatic gestures.

“Throughout his life, Barber was never without a volume or two of poetry at his bedside,” writes pianist John Browning. “Poetry was as necessary to his existence as oxygen.”  The Mélodies passagères (1950-51) are settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and constitute the only songs Barber set to verses in a foreign language. They were first performed in Paris in 1952 by two of France’s preeminent musicians, baritone Pierre Bernac and composer Francis Poulenc, who also recorded the songs. Barbara Heyman, in her monograph on Barber, observes that the Mélodies passagères are close in style to the French art song “not merely because of the texts, but primarily because of their semi-parlando vocal lines, fluid piano accompaniments marked with gentle syncopations, and expanded tonal language.” The haunting “Un cygne” (A Swan), third of the five Mélodies passagères, is imbued with the gliding quality we associate with this bird, but also with a pervasive darkness and gloom. The meaning of the text, like that of the other “passing melodies,” is enigmatic, even elusive: “A swan moves over the water surrounded by itself… a whole moving space. And draws near, doubled … on our troubled soul.”

Francis Poulenc: “Chansons Gaillardes”

Francis Poulenc was unquestionably one of the greatest composers of mélodies in the twentieth century. Numbering nearly 150, they were written across a 42-year span, Poulenc’s entire adult life. For the most part the songs are tonal, tuneful, concise, and use texts from some of the best French poets of the twentieth century, among them Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard and Max Jacob. For the Chansons gaillardes (1925-1926), however, he turned to anonymous texts from the seventeenth century. They deal mostly with earthy, even risqué subjects in an often satirical, playful or flippant manner. Even the songs about death and fate do not take themselves very seriously. The first is about a fickle mistress, the second is probably the most lugubrious drinking song ever written, the third a paean to a beautiful girl, the fourth a promise to love forever (subject to the will of the Fates!), the fifth a salacious comparison between wine and women, the sixth a variant of poet Robert Herrick’s admonition “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” (the most lyrical of the songs), the seventh an exuberant recommendation to remain single and never marry, and the last praise for womanly charms.

The great French baritone Pierre Bernac gave the first performance on May 2, 1926 with the composer at the piano. As Poulenc was a highly accomplished pianist, he wrote lively parts for his instrument.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen”

Korngold’s middle name was well chosen (he added it himself), for in precocity and fluency, he rivaled his namesake of years before, Mozart. He wrote his first major orchestral work at fourteen (premiered by that titan of the podium, Arthur Nikisch, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra) and two one-act operas at eighteen (premiered by Bruno Walter at the Munich State Opera). Korngold was not yet 24 when his full-length opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) was first heard on December 4, 1920. Initially, the opera was so popular that some eighty theaters produced it. 

Die tote Stadt is adapted from Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges – la Morte (1892), a dream-tale suffused with images of death and decay, and descriptions of a sleepy, stagnant, deserted city. Paul imagines that the young dancer he has met (Marietta) is actually the re-embodiment of his late wife Maria. The acting troupe of which Marietta is a member shows up in Act II. Among them is the character Fritz, who plays the role of Pierrot in the troupe. Marietta asks him for an impromptu song, one that “makes you dance and sway, dream sweetly in the moonlight’s ray, a song that lures and beguiles.” The music Korngold wrote for Fritz fulfills these demands perfectly. Further, the words to his song (“My yearning, my dreaming, returns to the past, the days of young love …”) allude to Paul’s own situation vis-à-vis Marie and her stand-in, Marietta.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Papagena, Papagena, Papagena”

Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) was Mozart’s last opera, premiered on September 30, 1791 just a few weeks before his death. Virtually unique in the annals of opera, it combines low camp with high morals, the comic and the serious, the ridiculous and the sublime, plus generous doses of mischief, satire, theatrical effects, Egyptology and Masonic symbolism in a work of unsurpassed genius. The aria we hear tonight comes from near the end of the opera. The birdcatcher Papageno, one of the flightiest yet most likeable characters in all opera, is at the end of his rope – literally. He has despaired of ever finding a sweetheart and is about to hang himself. He thought he had found one in Papagena, but no, he’s been stood up. Or so he thinks. All turns out right just after his “suicide aria” ends.

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: “Kogda by zhizn’”

Tchaikovsky’s approach to opera was highly personal. He tended to avoid spectacular battle scenes, marches, exotic locales, large contingents of supernumeraries and other trappings of “grand” opera. “Give me a subject in which the human element will predominate: love, jealousy, ambition,” he wrote.  I search for powerful, yet intimate drama, based on a conflict of situations which I have experienced and that I feel.” These words offer a custom-made prescription for Eugene Onegin (1879), Tchaikovsky’s fifth completed opera and the best known. It received its first professional production on January 23, 1881 (a student production had been given two years earlier).

Tatiana is in love with Onegin, to whom she pours out her feelings in a long and famous letter. But the next time they meet, Onegin advises her that he is not the marrying type; he is not even the type for warm affection. It is best that she know this now, he tells her, before any more emotional damage is done. The story comes from Pushkin, but it fit Tchaikovsky’s own life to a T. If ever there were a case of art mirroring life, this is it, for less than two months earlier, the composer had found himself in a very similar situation.

Tchaikovsky: three songs

Tchaikovsky wrote more than one hundred songs spread more or less evenly across his entire creative life, but only a few are well known. In these songs, writes his biographer David Brown, “Tchaikovsky probed directly into the human soul to expose its desires and passions, its joys and sorrows, its tenderness and its vulnerability. … he favoured verses concerned with strong, personal feeling.”

The Op. 38 songs were published in 1878, the year of the Violin Concerto. “Amid the Din of a Ball,” set to a poem of Alexis Tolstoy, is steeped in nostalgia and is one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular. A young man reflects wistfully on the vision of a beautiful woman he spies in a crowded ballroom. Set to the waltz rhythm, the image calls to mind similar scenes in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique (also a waltz), and Roméo et Juliette.

“Why?” comes from Tchaikovsky’s first set of published songs, Op. 6 (1875), which also includes his most famous, “None but the lonely heart.” Set to a poem of Heinrich Heine, it asks eight questions, each beginning with the same word and inquiring about some aspect of nature. The music moves forward relentlessly, culminating in a fortississimo outburst of anguish for the final question, “Why … did you forget me?” The piano postlude suggests resignation.

In “Don Juan’s Serenade,” another A. Tolstoy setting, we find the same lilting metre that Don Giovanni used in his serenade in Mozart’s opera (Tchaikovsky adored Mozart), but in place of suavity and elegance we find in Tchaikovsky the Don’s legendary arrogance and bluster. There is no mistaking the piano’s imitation of a furiously strummed guitar.

Federico Moreno Torroba: “Amor vida de mi vida”

Like Vaughan Williams, Moreno Torroba has a non-hyphenated surname, though one sometimes sees it also spelled with the hyphen. Moreno Torroba made his fame, both as a composer and a conductor, mostly through music for guitar and through zarzuela, the traditional Spanish version of comic opera. He is credited with a large role in making zarzuela known to international audiences, but he also wrote serious operas, of which the last, El Poeta, written in 1980 at the age of 89, starred Plácido Domingo in the title role.

The aria “Amor, vida de mi vida” (Love, Life of My Life) comes from the zarzuela Maravilla, premiered in Madrid in 1941. The story involves the classic love triangle with a complication from a family member: Raphael loves Elvira, who is having an affair with Faustino, who is the manager of Elvira’s mother Marvilla, who is an opera singer who will be Raphael’s partner in the next production. Such is the fame of Rapheal’s poignant aria that it turned up in Three Tenors concerts, sung by Domingo.

Gioachino Rossini: “Largo al factotum”

Great operatic comedies are far less plentiful than operatic tragedies. The Barber of Seville (1816) indubitably stands at the very pinnacle of this small repertory, and year after year ranks as one of the Top Ten most frequently performed operas of any kind, not surprisingly in view of its irrepressible high spirits, rich humor and wealth of great tunes. The barber of the title is Figaro, the same Figaro as in Mozart’s opera. Here he is about ten years younger and not yet employed as a servant in a royal household. His role, which he hugely enjoys, is the crafty, resourceful, clever citizen of Seville ever-ready to assist anyone and everyone with anything. Figaro is fully aware of his popular standing in the community, and shows no inhibitions in boasting about it. This he does in his enormously exuberant entrance aria, “Largo al factotum” (I’m the factotum).

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

Florian Boesch: programme notes

Florian BoeschA recital of Lieder set exclusively to poems of Heinrich Heine and composed solely by Schubert and Schumann is particularly apt inasmuch as Heine was born the same year as Schubert (1797) and died the same year as Schumann (1856). He was not only one of Germany’s leading romantic authors, he also wrote about travel, German thought and French politics (he became a staunch liberal, espoused the cause of the French Revolution and spent the last 25 years of his life in Paris). Heine is best remembered for his exquisite lyrics and ballads. His Buch der Lieder (1827) became one of the most popular books of German verse ever published. Nietzsche called Heine “the highest conception of the lyric poet,” and, with no lack of modesty, claimed that “it will one day be said that Heine and I have been by far the first artists of the German language.” In addition to Schubert and Schumann, Mendelssohn, (both Felix and his sister Fanny), Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Orff, among many others, have set his verse to song. Pietro Mascagni, composer of Cavalleria rusticana, made an opera out of Heine’s William Ratcliff.

Just as Goethe was Schubert’s poet of choice, it was Heine to whom Schumann turned most often for verses to set. Both composers were masters at capturing the psychological atmosphere of each poem, and in both, the piano writing is of utmost importance in defining the mood, which is often extended in the postludes.

Robert Schumann: Liederkreis, Op. 24

Schumann wrote his first songs the year before Schubert died. Schumann was seventeen at the time, and was already deeply under the spell of the older composer. But he wrote no more works in this genre until 1840, his annus mirabilus of song, during which he wrote more than half of his total output of Lieder (nearly 140 out of more than 250), including most of the best as well.

The impetus that gave birth to such a profusion of songs was Clara Wieck, whom he had been courting for years, but with whom marriage had been barred by Clara’s father. Now with legal entanglements out of the way, the future looked bright and rosy, Schumann was in the most buoyant of moods, and he was ready to flex his musical wings in new directions. His abrupt turn from writing exclusively solo piano music to almost exclusively vocal music reflected this turn of events, and he threw himself into his new pursuit with passionate intensity. “Oh Clara,” he wrote, “what bliss to write songs! Too long I have refrained from doing so.… I should like to sing myself to death like a nightingale.”

If Op. 24 is not strictly speaking a cycle in the sense of an identifiable course of events or a continuous story, there is nevertheless a psychological unity of theme and atmosphere in that all the songs are related to love and nature, and the moods expressed therein show the sequence of thoughts toward a final, exuberant flowering of love’s triumph. Schumann dedicated his first Liederkreis to the famous mezzo Pauline Viardot.

Presumably Schumann was inspired to write the cycle’s first song, “Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage” (Each morning I awake and ask …”) by a prolonged absence from Clara. Over the piano’s “walking” accompaniment, the poet sings with scarcely concealed rapture of the joy of seeing his beloved again.

Es treibt mich hin” (I’m driven this way and that) is another song about separation. Here, the lovers are due to meet in just a few hours, but the pain of waiting is almost unendurable. Frequent, impetuous changes of tempo and dynamics, sometimes in conjunction with unexpected pauses, convey the mental strain on the poet.

Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen” (I roamed under the trees) is steeped in melancholy and nostalgia. It is framed by a prelude and postlude that perfectly capture the gentle mood of a mid-day reverie.

Lieb’ Liebchen, leg’s Händchen” (Put your hand on my heart, darling) is surely one of Schumann’s most fascinating. In less than a minute, the composer captures the sinister picture of a carpenter fashioning a coffin for the lovesick poet. The piano part consists only of carpenter’s hammer, tapping steadily on the offbeats with the exception of two startling moments when it “jumps the gun” to articulate words the singer dreads to utter.

Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” (Cradle of my sorrows) is the most extended song of the cycle save the last. “Lebe wohl” (Farewell), that favorite cry of the Romantic poets, is heard eight times in the course of the song.

Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann” (Wait, wait, wild ferryman) makes its effect less through the vocal line, vigorous though it is, than through the piano writing, which consists mostly of rising scale fragments that dovetail, overlap, and interweave in an almost continuous counterpoint.

Berg’ und Burgen, schaun herunter” (Mountains and castles look down) is another boat song, this one as tender and gentle as the preceding was spirited. The quiet undulation of the boat on sunlit waves is naturally reflected in the piano part, while the singer delivers four verses which to Schumann evoke only happiness and contentment, despite the evil lurking in Heine’s words.

Schumann borrowed the opening of “Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen” (At first I was almost in despair) from a chorale melody Bach had used in no fewer than six cantatas. Richard Miller suggests that the text’s opening line – “If you earn God’s blessing, then it is every morning new!” – might have been Schumann’s “way of expressing thankfulness about his relationship with Clara.”

The closing song, “Mit Myrten und Rosen” (With myrtle and roses), is in a sense also the prologue to the cycle that immediately followed the Liederkreis, Myrthen (Op. 25), which Schumann had beautifully bound and gilded as a wedding present for his bride (they were married in September). Schumann gives the performance direction innig (heartfelt, sincere and intimate) for the first time in a song, a fitting embellishment for this tribute to the woman he loved so deeply.

Robert Schumann: selected songs

Both Schumann and Heine were admirers of Napoleon. In “Die beiden Grenadiere,” one of Schumann’s most successful excursions into the ballad form, two of Napoleon’s troops are en route home from the disastrous Russian campaign. Bugle calls, drum rolls and weary tramping are all depicted. To the sounds of the Marseillaise, one of them imagines his heroic deeds in defense of Napoleon. But the ballad’s last moments indicate a far different scenario – death.

“Mein Wagen rollet langsam” (My Carriage Rolls Slowly) consists of three connected parts: the poet dreaming of his beloved as his carriage rumbles peacefully over the uneven country road; the intrusion of three mysterious ghosts into the carriage (or is it just into the poet’s mind?); and a piano postlude that occupies more than a third of the song’s length.

“Abends am Strand” (Evening by the Sea) is short but gives the impression of a full-length ballad. Some girls are sitting by a little seaside shack, gazing out at sea. As the evening mists gather and lights come on in the lighthouse, their minds turn to ships and sailors, to storms and shipwrecks, to faraway lands and strange peoples.

“Belsazar” (Belshazzar) constitutes an opus number by itself, a practice Schumann repeated in several other songs of greater-than-normal length. In this miniature drama, King Belshazzar of Babylon feasts in his splendid palace, gets drunk on wine, blasphemes against God, beholds the  terrifying fiery writing on the wall, and is slain by his vassals – all events Schumann depicts with changes of texture, dynamics and vocal delivery.

“Der arme Peter” (Poor Peter) is actually three songs in one. They tell of the pitiable Peter watching his beloved (Grete) wed another (Hans), with fatal consequences to the bereft.

From the music alone, “Dein Angesicht” (Your face) would seem to be an expression of blissful love, but its text has an ominous ring: the face of the poet’s beloved is sweet but pale; only the lips are red, and those too will soon be white in death.

“Die Lotosblume” (The Lotus Blossom), from the collection Myrthen, is set to Heine’s allegory of chaste love in the form of a flower floating on a lake. The placid surface of the lake is reflected in the unvarying triplets in the piano, but passion seethes just below the surface in the form of Schumann’s constantly changing harmonic palette.

Another flower song from Myrthen is “Du bist wie eine Blume” (Thou art like a flower). Here too the piano provides a pulsing accompaniment (this time in quadruplets) richly decked out in harmonic splendor. Eric Sams describes Schumann’s paean of praise to his wife Clara as “sumptuously sensual.”

Franz Schubert: six songs from Schwanengesang, D. 957

The fourteen songs collected under the rubric Schwanengesang are among Schubert’s last efforts in the genre, mostly written in the final year of his life. They were assembled by the Viennese editor-publisher Tobias Haslinger in the year after Schubert died. The group comprises seven songs set to texts of Ludwig Rellstab, six to Heinrich Heine and one to Johann Seidl. The Heine songs are the only ones Schubert composed to this poet. To Schubert scholar John Reed, “their mood of bitter irony and tragic alienation is much closer to Winterreise than it is to the Rellstab songs. In a real sense, the Heine songs begin where Winterreise leaves off.”

“Das Fischermädchen” (The Fishermaid) is a deceptively pleasant barcarolle in which the gentle lapping of water on the boat encourages the poet’s false trust in the fishermaid.

“Am Meer” (By the Sea) too is a lover’s lament, full of irony and bitterness.

In “Ihr Bild” (Her Picture), a portrait comes to life to remind the forlorn poet of what he has lost.

“Die Stadt” (The Town) is another water picture, this one describing a weary journey across the lake, accomplished to thoughts of a lost love.

The darkly brooding tragedy “Der Doppelgänger” (The Double), more a declamation than a song, is one of Schubert’s most powerful lyric utterances, rising to a heartrending fff as the poet recognizes his double in the moonlight, grieving outside the home of a long-lost beloved.

And finally, “Der Atlas” plunges us again into a world of spiritual turmoil and suffering. Its portrayal of the weary Atlas bearing the world on his shoulder serves as a metaphor for the heaviness of a lover’s broken heart.

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

Getting to Know: Simon Keenlyside

“I am a story teller, I am a narrator.”

“I spend my entire working life dealing only with beauty; I rarely sing with a piece of music in front of me, so all of these beautiful songs are committed to memory.”

Performing opera does not come without its risks: injuring his back in one performance, Keenlyside was prevented from appearing in Chicago and San Francisco opera productions of Iphigénie en Tauride. An earlier injury was sustained when, as a young singer in Turandot, he fell of a ramp into a pit with a mask on, “smashing myself to pieces.” Keenlyside’s debut in Eugene Onegin was delayed after mangling his hand due to a fall through a trap door.

Keenlyside explains, “All singers get hurt. The backstage area is deadly, full of cables and sharp things. I’ve never hurt myself doing stunts. As you come out of the light into the wings, there’s the danger. But also, if you’re any sort of a stage animal, this is a contact sport. It happens to everyone. It’s a bit of a circus job.”

Some interesting Keenlyside clips:
Renee Fleming interviews Simon Keenlyside backstage at the Met.

Bill Richardson interviews Keenlyside for Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.

Critical praise: The BBC Music Magazine has described Keenlyside as “the greatest lyric baritone of our time, indeed one of the greatest of any time. He submerges his personality in the roles he portrays, and does it with virtually unique insight and completeness. Everything is built, however, on superb breath control and a remarkable capacity for colouring the voice, combined with flawless legato, the principles underlying all great singing.”

(Sources: musicomh.com; edinburghfestivals.co.uk)

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