I am not a Lieder enthusiast, yet I think Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock is absolutely glorious. Perhaps what makes this song special to me is the clarinet obbligato. Three’s company, one might say, and I was intrigued by the idea of an entire CD of songs written for voice, piano and clarinet. Is this a new idea? If so, more’s the pity, because Schubert’s example – it is the earliest item here – appears to have inspired composers both famous and little known to raise the dam of melody.
Franz Lachner was one of Schubert’s closest friends, and his songs are unsurprisingly Schubertian. Seit ich ihn gesehen and Auf Flügeln des Gesanges were set by Schumann and Mendelssohn respectively, but Lachner’s earlier settings are not without distinction. Spohr’s song-cycle came along a bit later, as did Andreas Spaeth’s bucolic Alpenlied. In 1854, when he composed the Schumannesque Der Himmel hat eine Thräne Geweint, Friedrich Kücken was a Stuttgart based conductor. To the east, the Bohemian Johannes Wenceslaus Kalliwoda used a clarinet to amplify the nostalgia of a homesick dairymaid in Der Sennin Heimweh.
Songs with a clarinet obbligato weren’t unique to German-speaking countries. Mariano Obiols was a Spaniard living in Italy, I Laj (The Lamentation) could be mistaken for Rossini or Donizetti. Meyerbeer was known for French opera, although Des Schäfer’s Lied sets Rellstab’s German poem. As late as 1898, English composer Richard Walthew was wringing the genre dry with his autumnal Song of Love and Death, a moving setting of Tennyson.
Clearly these songs are mostly unfamiliar, yet they give simple pleasure, and for that reason alone this CD would be a success. Fortunately, the performances are very fine. Eirian James is a sensitive mezzo-soprano who varies the brightness of her timbre to suit the mood of the song. In three of the songs she is accompanied by Robert Murray, who is similarly communicative and mellow. Many of these songs were written for amateurs, and while Colin Bradbury’s technique is not greatly stretched by this repertoire, the beauty and personality of his tone merit admiration. Oliver Davies is a solid accompanist.
St Paul’s School in London was the recording venue, and the engineers have used it well; the sound is intimate but not at all suffocating. Texts and translations are included albeit in a tiny booklet separate from the standard-sized notes, which the pianist and the clarinettist wrote with an abundance of educational zeal.
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