This fascinating survey of solo songs with clarinet obbligato reminds us of a tradition which began in 1828 with Schubert’s setting of Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (D.965) and continued until the end of the 19th century; in fact , the latest setting on this disc, from 1898, is an early song (in English) by the Englishman Richard Henry Walthew, who lived until 1951. By then the tradition had been forgotten and it has taken knowledgeable research by Colin Bradbury and Oliver Davies to reconstruct it for the 21st –century listener, It is striking what difference the addition of an obbligato clarinet makes to the whole aim and effect of a song. When Schubert wrote Der Hirt auf dem Felsen for the operatic diva Anna Milder-Hauptmann, his brilliant party-piece was far removed in mood and intent from the intimate intensity of Winterreise and the late Heine settings. It is a ten-minute cantata, a public showpiece and a vehicle for a diva with a vocal range exceeding two octaves as well as a fine instrumentalist. A good way to appreciate the difference in kind between songs with and without obbligato clarinet is to compare the early settings by Franz Lachner of Seit ich ihn gesehen (op. 82) and Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, with which the disc opens, with the familiar later settings by Schumann and Mendelssohn. The Lachner settings are salon pieces, with brilliance standing in for true sentiment; each lasts a full five minutes, with frequent repetition of the words and a prolonged introduction for clarinet and piano. They are enjoyable as pure music, but add nothing to the meaning of the words. This would undoubtedly be a damning judgement on any lied with piano; indeed, the many forgotten lieder composers are often those whose songs evoke similar criticism.
It should be stressed, by the way, that the discussion of the shortcomings of Lachner and the nature of the song with obbligato in no way detracts from the value of the present disc. On the contrary, we are given a rare opportunity to hear these settings and make our own comparisons and judgements.
Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen is the earliest, the longest and possibly the best song on the disc, but is certainly challenged for the palm by the Sechs deutsche Lieder (op.103) of Louis Spohr, composed in 1837. Each of these gems manages to communicate the meaning of the words, with the clarinet used in a variety of guises to enhance the meaning; the lulling low-register filigree work in the Wiegenlied (“lullaby”) is a good example of this. These songs, unlike the others, have deservedly retained their place in the German song repertory. Settings by Meyerbeer (Des Schäfers Lied); Kalliwoda (Der Sennin Heimweh) and Spaeth (Alpenlied) follow Schubert in using the clarinet in an alpine setting, with associations of loneliness, awe and longing, present also in Spohr’s setting of Goethe’s Sehnsucht. For the sake of completeness, I must mention also Friedrich Küchert’s Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweint and Mariano Obiol’s I Laj – the latter an attractive showpiece in Italian by a Spaniard who studied in Italy.
Eirian James is a Welsh soprano whose operatic style is generally well suited to this repertoire, with fine control and intonation throughout. The Schubert setting holds no terrors for her; indeed, here she is in her element – although a harsh edge to the voice disturbed me in this song particularly, given that there are so many competing versions. Spohr’s six contrasting settings are extremely well handled. The young tenor Robert Murray sings only three songs; as second-prize winner of the Kathleen Ferrier competition in 2003, he perhaps deserves more. His voice sounds a little strained at times.
Oliver Davies is a sympathetic accompanist (in these songs, this really is a more appropriate term than ‘partner’), but the co-star of the disc (with Eirian James) is Colin Bradbury. Despite some noise from the keys, due to a close recording of the clarinettist, Bradbury demonstrates that he has lost none of that technical efficiency and flamboyance which made him such a popular principal of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for over 30 years. In each song he seeks out the exact nature and tone of the clarinet’s contribution and achieves nuances of expression which bring a smile to the lips. The recording is very good, despite a tendency to promote singer and clarinettist at the expense of the pianist, thus threatening the harmonic support of the whole, and the disc is highly recommended. Notes on each song and translations are provided.
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