July 08, 2010


Mendelssohn: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage; Die Erste Walpurgisnacht; Brahms: Alto Rhapsody; Schumann: Requiem für Mignon. Barbara Hölzl, mezzo-soprano; Christian Elsner, tenor; Detlef Roth, bass; Freiburger Bachchor and SWR Sinfoniorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg conducted by Hans Michael Beuerle. Ars Musici. $16.99.

Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin. James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano. Orchid Classics. $16.99.

     Both a poet as supreme as Goethe and a lesser one such as Wilhelm Müller can inspire great music if composers happen to find their works congenial. In fact, it may be harder for composers to undertake to set verse as awe-inspiring as Goethe’s – it is as if music can somehow add less to his poems than to other works that are, on the face of it, less impressive. Still, several composers have made notable attempts to set Goethe, and a new Ars Musici CD is set up very cleverly as a “theme” disc, containing four settings of Goethe by three important Romantic composers. Only three of the settings are vocal – the fourth being Mendelssohn’s well-known concert overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (the first part of its title better explained as “Becalmed at Sea”). Listeners to this CD who can read German can see the poems on which Mendelssohn based the overture and judge how well he translated them into musical terms – but they are not translated into English, unfortunately, so their value is for a limited audience. More seriously, all the texts of the works are given only in German, and without even a Web link for translations. This is less crucial for Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, which is comparatively well known and is essentially an expression of deeply felt grief, than it is for the other, less-known works on the CD. Still, the manifest beauties of all these scores make the CD worth having on its own terms. Barbara Hölzl, a mezzo-soprano misidentified on the CD as an alto, handles the plaintive self-pity and genuine anguish of the Alto Rhapsody with great sensitivity, and both the choral and orchestral support are excellent – especially considering the fact that this entire CD is a live recording made more than a decade ago (June 1999) but only now released. Schumann’s Requiem für Mignon comes across very effectively, too, in setting a scene from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. What Schumann produces is something a touch operatic, a touch like a cantata – and very effective throughout. The longest work on the CD, Mendelssohn’s half-hour Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, gets a particularly impressive performance, its story of Druids continuing their rites despite the increasing encroachment of Christianity sounding at times impassioned, at times highly chromatic, at times gentle and yearning. Hans Michael Beuerle leads this and all the works with a sure hand and fine control over solo and massed voices, and with an excellent sense of balance between the vocal and orchestral forces. This is a thoroughly winning CD, well sung and well played – and well focused on the greatest poet in the German language.

     Wilhelm Müller’s poetry’s quality is far from Goethe’s, but it was Müller’s works that inspired Schubert’s two great song cycles -- Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise – as well as a number of other Schubert songs. Clearly Müeller’s naïveté, feelings for nature and simplicity of expression were highly congenial for Schubert, inspiring him to create imaginative works pervaded by gorgeous themes and filled with emotions that are moving even when listeners know, intellectually, that they are overdone. Die Schöne Müllerin is frequently sung by a baritone, but a tenor is in many ways better suited to this story of intense young love and intense young despair. Certainly the very youthful tones of James Gilchrist are exceptionally apt for the music. At 44, Gilchrist is older than the doomed young singer of the cycle, but he keeps his voice light and his sound youthfully enthusiastic – and then youthfully heartbroken – as the story progresses. This works beautifully: Gilchrist makes it clear that the young man is as headstrong when falling in love as he is when determining to take his own life in despair when his love is not reciprocated. The early songs in the cycle practically tumble over each other as Gilchrist – superbly complemented by Anna Tilbrook, who is less an accompanist than a full participant in the story – builds to the joyous outcry in the song Ungeduld, “Dein ist mein Herz,” and the even more exuberant proclamation in Mein! in which the young man states, unfortunately quite prematurely, “Die geliebte Müllerin ist mein!” It is the apparently boundless enthusiasm of these bright and forthright exclamations that lends the cycle so much pathos when circumstances turn against the youth – but this is pathos, not tragedy. The collaborative nature of Gilchrist and Tilbrook’s performance is nowhere clearer than in the final two songs, when the despairing singer speaks with the brook and the brook itself, after his suicide, lulls him to eternal rest. Yes, the brook – its sound clearly displayed in the piano – participates in the songs, but it does so in a detached way, as a natural force rather than a thoroughly anthropomorphized one. Thus, the cycle ends with peace and a touch of regret, but without any attempt to make it seem as if the brook is deeply mourning the youth’s death, for that it simply cannot do. This is an elegantly sung and beautifully played interpretation of Die Schöne Müllerin, and one given considerable strength as well as beauty by the equal partnership of the two performers.

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