Eugene Asti and his dedicated team of singers present us with an engaging recital of twenty-six songs and duets from the Mendelssohn stable. This collection includes settings of poetry by Goethe, Byron, Heine, Eichendorff and others; twenty songs are by Felix Mendelssohn—whose facility to charm is perfectly exploited in such a medium—with Fanny Mendelssohn demonstrating in the remaining six an extraordinary and striking talent, quite the match of her younger sibling.
The Mendelssohn songs without words may indeed outshine the Lieder in our contemporary consciousness, but here we find domestic bliss in pure musical form.
The first two volumes in this ongoing series have been warmly received around the world.
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Felix Mendelssohn must be the only composer in history whose songs without words are rather better known than those with them! Each one is a polished miniature in its own right, replete with gratefully written, eminently singable vocal lines, and piano accompaniments to match. The kinds of problems that Beethoven, for example, encountered both idiomatically and in terms of the balancing of instrument and voice simply do not occur in Mendelssohn’s music.
Mendelssohn possessed such extraordinary natural gifts that the act of composition came as automatically to him as day-to-day conversation for most mortals. On occasion he paid the price for his sheer ease of facility, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his 106 surviving songs. For all their enviable, effortless mastery, one senses Mendelssohn’s lieder are in general an affectionate response to poems that he had taken a particular fancy to, rather than a Schumannesque-style transfiguration onto a higher level of existence. It is therefore fair to say that comparatively few of Mendelssohn’s settings improve upon the poems he uses.
In Mendelssohn’s lifetime he was roundly viewed as the Romantic who had carried Mozart’s ideals of Classical concision and clarity through the first half of the nineteenth century. In the instrumental field, most especially in the case of the String Octet, the parallels between the two composers are indeed striking. However, when it comes to word setting, with Mozart one invariably senses a composer living through the emotions he conveys, whereas Mendelssohn is more an astute observer of feelings and events. This is in no way to accuse Mendelssohn of expressive superficiality, as anyone who knows the late F minor String Quartet, for example, will surely testify, merely that he viewed song-writing as an opportunity to produce gently affecting pleasantries to be sung in a domestic, drawing-room setting, rather than a genre to be set beside the sonata and quartet.
The earliest songs in this collection all date from 1827 and appeared in Mendelssohn’s first published collection of twelve lieder, Op 8. He was already a highly experienced and internationally renowned composer at the relatively tender age of eighteen. Minnelied im Mai opens the collection to a text by the tragically short-lived German Romantic poet Ludwig Hölty (1748–1776), who is generally considered the most gifted lyric writer of the Göttinger Hain, a group of young poets who saw themselves as the natural heirs of Friedrich Klopstock, and whose work was characterised by a love of nature and the expression of national feeling. If Brahms’s more mature setting of the same poem as the fifth of his Op 71 set (published in 1877 when the composer was forty-four) is rather better known, Mendelssohn’s artless simplicity is no less touching (other settings include those by Schubert, D429 (1816) and Charles Ives (c1892)).
Pilgerspruch features the poetry of Martin Opitz’s distinguished seventeenth-century disciple, Paul Fleming (1609–1640). The same evocative text also forms the basis of Brahms’s sublime Geistliches Lied, Op 30, for SATB chorus and organ, and Reger’s Laß dich nur nichts nicht dauern, Op 137 No 9. Mendelssohn’s gentle intensification of an unexpectedly long-held ‘heißt’ in the third stanza is especially telling here. Abendlied perfectly encapsulates Johann Heinrich Voss’s (1751–1826) dreamy imaginings of a restful evening after a hard day’s work in the fields. Voss was a fellow-member of the Göttinger Hain alongside Ludwig Hölty, and was a particular favourite of both Felix and his sister Fanny, although he is principally remembered today for his remarkably lucid German translations of Homer. The last of Felix’s contributions to Op 8 is a traditional Spanish Romanze, whose somewhat heated second stanza (‘I dol sin not vainly, / Heaven will forgive!’) is matched by some uncharacteristic florid moments of lyrical ecstasy.
The odd ones out in this group are, of course, Das Heimweh (the impassioned second song of Op 8), and the enchanting concluding duet, Suleika und Hatem, both of which were composed by Felix’s older sister Fanny (1805–1847), whose not inconsiderable output includes some three hundred song settings. Indeed, far from being over-faced by her prodigy brother’s, Fanny’s settings are amongst the most striking of the Op 8 set, their resemblance to Felix’s burgeoning style being quite uncanny. Das Heimweh is a setting of the German Romantic poet Friedricke Robert (1795–1832), whose only other major musical claim to fame is as the source of two settings by Felix: Frühlingslied, Op 8 No 6 (recorded on Hyperion, CDA67137), and Lieblingsplätzchen, Op 99 No 3 (recorded on Hyperion, CDA66906).
Four further lieder in this collection lay testimony to Fanny’s extraordinary talent, three of them duet settings of the celebrated German poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856). Wenn ich in deine Augen sehe (‘When I look into your eyes’) is a particular favourite with composers, having inspired settings from Robert Franz (Op 44 No 5), Hugo Wolf (the fourth of his Heine-Lieder), and, most notably, Robert Schumann as the fourth song of his classic 1840 masterpiece Dichterliebe, Op 48. The gently swaying rhythms of Fanny’s G minor setting encapsulate to perfection the tantalising, bittersweet restraint of the poem itself.
Both Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov set (different) Russian translations/adaptations of Aus meinen Tränen sprießen (‘From my tears spring’), although its most famous outing by some distance is as the second song in Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Fanny’s setting (once again cast in G minor, but with an extended section in the relative major, B flat, and a particularly effective tierce de picardie ending) impresses by its elegant restraint in the face of powerful emotions. Finally Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (‘In the lovely month of May’), which becomes an enchanting, skipping duet in Fanny’s skilled hands, but is famous the world over as the opening song of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, as well providing the inspiration for Robert Franz’s Op 25 No 5 (published 1870), the opening song of Bartók’s Drei Lieder (1898) and a whole host of lesser lights. Sehnsucht (‘Longing’), which appeared originally as the seventh song of brother Felix’s Op 9 (1830), is a disingenuously simple setting of a poem by historian, politician and prime mover in German unification, Johann Gustav Droysen (1808–1884), another Mendelssohn family favourite who inspired Felix’s Ferne (No 9) and Entsagung (No 11) from the same set, the latter a hymn-like setting of engaging innocence. Another song from the Op 9 collection, Im Frühling (‘Spring’) sets an anonymous text in a style that Mendelssohn was to make very much his own, with short arching melodic phrases underpinned by pulsating semiquavers in the piano, which generate an exhilarating sense of forward momentum and excitement.
Mendelssohn’s next set of six lieder was published as Op 19a in 1833. The fifth song, Gruß, is an endearingly simplistic, subtle and deservedly popular Heine setting, framed by a little fanfare figure reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s ‘Songs without Words’ style. The Op 34 set was published some four years later in 1837, although a number of the (six) settings date from rather earlier. The present recital features the two settings from Op 34 based on the poetry of Karl Klingemann (1798–1862), a comparatively minor German Romantic whose work nevertheless inspired a total of nine settings by Mendelssohn. Frühlingslied (‘Spring Song’, 1832) is an uncontainably exuberant miniature, whose dashing triplet quavers in the accompaniment are magically transformed into contented legato crotchets and minims at the end of each verse. The flowing compound rhythms of Sonntagslied (‘Sunday Song’, 1834) cast a spell of radiant A major contentment on the listener, only briefly dispelled as the lover is left alone (‘Und ich, ich bin so gar allein!’), inspiring a poignant moment of heartfelt reflection.
Dating from the same period, but not assigned to any particular opus by Mendelssohn, are two romances by Lord Byron (1788–1824). The original of Keine von der Erde Schönen (1833) has been set by countless composers as ‘There be none of Beauty’s daughters’ (including an 1840 setting by Mendelssohn’s great friend Ignaz Moscheles), but Mendelssohn and Wolf (using different translations) remain the only German composers of note to have so far been seduced by its charms. Interestingly Schlafloser Augen Leuchte (1834), or to give it its original title ‘Sun of the Sleepless! Melancholy star!’, has provoked less musical interest in Byron’s homeland, yet in various translations has inspired Schumann (Op 95 No 2), Rimsky-Korsakov (Op 41 No 1), Wolf (as Sonne der Schlummerlosen) and Loewe (Op 13 No 6). Both Byron settings are entirely free of the vein of sentimentality that is occasionally detectable in Mendelssohn’s cosier pleasantries. Wie kann ich froh und lustig sein? (‘How can I be gay and merry?’), an 1837 duet cast in a wistful A minor and the first of Drei Volkslieder, rounds out this little group of works which lie outside the usual published canon. The text is by (Johann) Philipp Kaufmann (1802–1846), whose relatively slender output inspired at least one other major setting in the form of Liszt’s Die tote Nachtigall.
Following the six lieder, Op 47, published in 1839, Mendelssohn’s next major collection was Op 57 from 1843, the last set of songs to be published in his lifetime. By now he was freely grouping together songs composed over a number of years, including the two in this collection. Altdeutsches Lied (‘Old German Song’), the sublime opening song of the set, was composed in 1839 to words by the medieval poet Heinrich der tugendhafte Schreiber (literally ‘the virtuous writer’), who is known to have been writing between about 1208 and 1228. Suleika is an archetypal Mendelssohn scherzo in miniature dating from 1841, and sounding for all the world like an evacuee from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed two years later. One particularly nice touch is Mendelssohn’s self-quotation from his earlier Suleika setting, Op 34 No 4, at the words ‘Ach, die wahre Herzenskunde’. Although at one time attributed to Mendelssohn’s childhood friend Goethe, the text is actually by one of his disciples, Marianne von Willemer (1784–1860), and was also set by Schubert (Suleika I, D720, composed in 1821).
The first of several posthumous collections is the set of six, Op 71, published in 1847 shortly after Mendelssohn’s premature death. Tröstung (‘Comfort’, 1845) is a plaintive setting of August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1798–1874), a deeply patriotic poet, philologist and historian whose writing proved a popular source of Romantic inspiration for the likes of Schumann, Liszt, Zemlinsky, Marschner, Brahms, Wolf and Richard Strauss, and whose Deutschland, Deutschland über alles was adopted as the German national anthem after World War I. Schilflied (‘Reed Song’), the fourth of the set composed in 1842 to words by Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850), is initially cast in the haunting key of F sharp minor (tellingly, out of countless hundreds of pieces, Mendelssohn’s hero, Mozart, used this key only once, for the central movement of his piano concerto K488). The transition into the tonic major at the words ‘Mir ein süßes Deingedenken’ is seamlessly achieved. Lenau’s typically melancholic verses are a reflection of his lifelong battle with depression. A brilliant student of law, medicine and philosophy, it was his inheritance as Lord of Strehlenau that allowed Lenau (a pseudonym to disguise his real Lordly name of Nikolaus Franz Niembsch) to devote himself to poetry from the mid-1830s. Nachtlied (‘Night Song’, 1847), one of the composer’s most inspired settings, closes out Op 71. The cherishable prose is the work of the greatest German lyric poet after Goethe and Heine, Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857), whose writings so perfectly encapsulated the Romantic age that Schumann set one of the greatest of all song collections exclusively to his texts – Liederkreis, Op 39 (1840) – and in 1948 Richard Strauss chose Im Abendrot to conclude his Vier letzte Lieder as his farewell to the lied.
A number of songs that were discovered following Mendelssohn’s death quickly found their way to the printing presses, including a set of three ‘Op 84’, and a further set of six, ‘Op 86’, all published in 1850 although mostly dating from the 1830s. Written in 1836, Morgenlied (‘Morning Song’) is an outward-going, uncomplicated Voss setting (see Op 8 above), that contrasts markedly with the gentle poetic introspection of Der Mond (‘The Moon’, 1847) to words by Emanuel von Geibel (1815–1884), another particular favourite of Mendelssohn’s close friend and admirer, Robert Schumann. Also from the end of Mendelssohn’s tragically short life comes Die Sterne schau’n in stiller Nacht (‘The stars in silent night gaze down’), the second of six songs published in 1852 as ‘Op 99’. Cast in three clearly differentiated sections, it stands at the summit of Mendelssohn’s achievement as a lieder composer, yet interestingly it is his only setting of words by Albert Graf von Schlippenbach (1800–1886), a gentleman’s gentleman to the King of Prussia and friend of Heinrich Heine and Adelbert de Chamisso. Mendelssohn’s transformation from the chromatically intensified opening, through a radiant Allegretto con moto (‘Ihr Sternlein, ach!’) to the sublimely contented ‘Nun still, du weinend Mädchen’ is achieved with a miraculous sleight of hand. If Mendelssohn had written just this one song, his mastery of the medium would have been put beyond any doubt.
Julian Haylock © 2003
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