Herr Oluf Op 2 No 2 [6'13]
In his lifetime the German composer Carl Loewe was often referred to as the ‘Schubert of North Germany’. He is frequently credited with the development of the romantic ballad into a powerful art form, and his prolific output of ballads and songs amounts to some four hundred works. Loewe’s treatment of long narrative poems in a clever and powerful mixture of dramatic and lyrical styles, has been a template for many subsequent composers.
Many of the ballads on this disc are masterpieces of their genre and they are performed here in a magisterial Hyperion debut by Austrian baritone Florian Boesch. In these refined performances it is clear why Boesch has been labelled as ‘one of the finest interpreters of Lieder of his generation’. His ability to create characters and enact stories brings the dramatic texts vividly to life, while he maintains musical coherence with astonishing lyricism.
Loewe’s daring and imaginative accompaniments are played here by the incomparable Roger Vignoles, in another addition to his acclaimed discography of Hyperion recordings. His eloquent pianism and penetrating musicianship match Boesch’s artistry to perfection.
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Born in the village of Löbejün, near Halle, just two months before Schubert, Carl Loewe has been aptly described as a medieval strolling minstrel transplanted to the Romantic age. As the star chorister in Köthen he had won the admiration, and the financial support, of Jérôme Bonaparte, King of Westphalia. He composed two of his most famous ballads, Edward and Erlkönig, in 1817/18, while still a student in Halle. In 1820 his performances of ‘Erlkönig’ and other songs greatly impressed Goethe and his musical guru Carl Zelter in Weimar. Appointed music director in Stettin (present-day Szczecin) the same year, Loewe composed prolifically in all the main genres of the day: opera, oratorio, symphony, sonata, chamber music. But it was as a singer of his own songs that he became celebrated, first in the provincial capitals of Germany, and then on a wider international stage. In 1847 he visited London and sang at court, with Prince Albert turning the pages. The Viennese, who especially admired his Erlkönig, dubbed him ‘the north German Schubert’; and wherever he performed—sometimes sharing a recital with his second wife Auguste, a gifted soprano—he was acclaimed both for his imposing dramatic presence and his fine voice: a tenorish baritone of wide range, with a special facility in florid figuration and soft, high-lying music, whether playful or eerie.
In late eighteenth-century Germany the vogue for narrative ballads, often of English, Celtic or Scandinavian origin, was part of an aesthetic that rejected Gallic-rococo artifice in favour of an idealized ‘primitive’ art. Johann Gottfried Herder (translator of numerous English and Scottish folk poems), Goethe, Schiller and scores of lesser poets satisfied contemporary taste with tales of wife-murder, parricide, avenging revenants and fatal enchantment by fairies and sprites. These compressed thrillers-in-verse were further popularized in settings by composers such as Zelter, Johann Friedrich Reichardt and, above all, Johann Zumsteeg. In a later generation, the teenaged Schubert would follow suit. As a travelling actor-singer adept at wooing an audience, Loewe found his natural mode of expression in these one-man mini-operas, with the singer representing two or more characters and the keyboard providing scenery, lighting and sound effects.
The text of Edward is a translation of a grisly Scottish folk ballad from Bishop Percy’s 1765 collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Wagner greatly admired Loewe’s setting, in the ‘extreme’ key of E flat minor, and far more powerful than Schubert’s surprisingly plain, muted treatment. Loewe gives each recurring cry of ‘Oh’ a psychologically revealing new twist, and reinforces the two most dramatic moments with a chilling harmonic coup: at Edward’s confession of murder (‘Ich hab’ geschlagen meinen Vater tot’), and at the hysterical final curse, where the turbulent piano conjures up a Wagnerian orchestra.
The poem of Erlkönig—adapted from a Danish folk ballad—comes from a little-known Goethe play with music, Die Fischerin, performed at the Weimar court in 1782. The fisher-girl of the title, Dortchen, sings it softly to herself one evening as she mends her nets. What Goethe expected (and, in Weimar, got) was a simple quasi-folk tune repeated for each verse. Schubert in 1815 recreated the poem in music of searing dramatic power. Loewe’s song, composed two years later, is less violently ‘interventionist’ than Schubert’s, more faithful to the externals of the narrative—doubtless part of its appeal to Goethe—but hardly less powerful. Wagner, for one, far preferred the Loewe setting. Where Schubert immediately establishes an atmosphere of panic with the feverishly pounding hooves, Loewe initially depicts the eerily rustling leaves, with the galloping motion merely implied. Only after the father’s first, comforting words to the sick boy does the galloping rhythm become explicit. The hypnotically repeated nursery tune for the Erlking’s words acquires a seductive-sinister twist from the flicking grace notes; and while Loewe’s song is generally more restrained than Schubert’s, his ending, conversely, is more melodramatic, with pregnant silences and a ‘shock’ diminished seventh chord on ‘tot’.
Translated from the Scottish original by Theodor Fontane, Tom der Reimer is a lighthearted take on the archetypal tale of the beautiful temptress ensnaring her prey. Tom, happy to exchange seven years of enslavement for a kiss, is the most insouciant of Loewe’s vivid gallery of characters. The composer evokes the elegantly tripping steed and the tinkling silver bell with his trademark economy and charm, and marks the moment of revelation (‘Ich bin die Elfenkönigin’) by a shift to a strange, remote key. The pair then canter off through the greenwood in the most innocuous music imaginable, with the silver bells tinkling ironically to the end. Dating from around 1860, this is one of Loewe’s last ballads—though as contemporaries often remarked, his style and method had hardly changed in the four decades since Edward and Erlkönig.
Like Erlkönig, Herr Oluf (1821) draws on the sixteenth-century Danish legend in which anyone who encounters elves is doomed to die. (Herder, incidentally, mistranslates the Danish eller (= ‘elf’) as Erle (= ‘alder tree’).) The piano introduction suggests the lure of the fairy dance and tinkling bells. Then the Erlking’s daughter introduces herself with solemn formality. But the diminished seventh chord on ‘Hand’ gives an ominous warning; and her siren song, marked pp sotto voce, creates a subtly sinister effect by rising through a minor-keyed arpeggio but landing on the leading note, a semitone below the expected tonic. After the frantic horse ride of the central verses and the anxious questioning of Oluf’s mother, a graceful Andantino evokes the innocence of Oluf’s bride. But the Erlking’s daughter has done her work. And, in a final stroke, Oluf’s death comes in a phrase that slyly inverts the fatal seduction song.
In lighter mode is Graf Eberstein (1826), an Uhland ballad that draws on the historical feud between the Saxon Emperor Otto I (936–973) and the counts of Eberstein. Loewe sets the tale, with its faintly risqué payoff, as a whirling Ländler that evokes Haydn’s Seasons or Mahler’s more innocent Wunderhorn songs.
Goethe’s tongue-in-cheek ballad Die wandelnde Glocke tells the story of an errant schoolboy terrified into mending his ways by a roving bell. Loewe’s setting of 1832 illustrates the narrative in delightful picture-book style. The voice sings a jaunty, folksy tune, while the piano, as ever, provides piquant detail—the tolling bell, the blithely skipping child, and the hullabaloo as the bell ‘escapes’.
With Odins Meeresritt (1851), written in Norway while Loewe was recovering from the trauma of his daughter Adele’s death, the composer revisits the dark world of Scandinavian folk legend. The horse’s restless pawing, and (at the end) the strange glow and the soaring eagles are evoked as colourfully as the contrasting figures of the demonically driven Odin (= Wotan), king of the gods (from his music alone we know he is a giant), and the wary blacksmith. Memorable, too, is Loewe’s depiction of the expanding horseshoe (‘Es ist zu klein, da dehnt es sich aus’) in a slow crescendo and mysterious chromatic harmonies that grow to a dazzling brightness.
Der Pilgrim vor St Just (1844) comes from a set of four ballads about the Spanish King Charles V, whose retirement to the monastery of St Just (he had his own palace built in the grounds) was not quite as ascetically self-denying as legend has it. The monastery bell tolls gloomily throughout in the left hand, while the right hand intones an austere chant in counterpoint with the voice.
In Der Wirthin Töchterlein (1823) Loewe sets an ironically sentimental Uhland tale of three Rhenish lads vying in their devotion to an innkeeper’s dead daughter. After the jaunty opening, he dramatizes the tragic revelation (‘Mein Töchterlein liegt auf der Todtenbahr’) with a shock fortissimo on an alien chord. The third lad’s avowal of eternal love is crowned by a lingering descent on ‘Ewigkeit’, and a seraphic postlude that seems to pre-echo Schubert’s Ave Maria.
While Loewe is known today primarily through half-a-dozen of his 200-odd ballads, he also composed some 350 Lieder. If some are trite or conventional, the best, including the two Goethe Wandrers Nachtlied settings, reveal a mastery of shapely cantabile melody and apt, atmospheric accompaniment. Goethe wrote Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’, his sublime meditation on nature as harbinger of the soul’s rest, on the wall of a wooden shooting-box in the Thuringian hills while contemplating a late-summer sunset. Loewe’s touching settings of this poem (1817), and the prayer for inner peace Der du von dem Himmel bist (1828), are both more operatically Italianate than Schubert’s famous songs.
One of Loewe’s finest Lieder is his rapt, bel canto setting—somewhere between Schubert and Bellini—of the last of Goethe’s great lyrics, Lynceus, der Thürmer (1833). In the Part Two of Faust, the lynx-eyed watchman on the tower, and by extension the aged Goethe himself, contemplates the beauty of all he surveys, and hymns his gratitude for the gift of sight. Süsses Begräbnis and Hinkende Jamben come from a set of twelve settings of Friedrich Rückert published in 1837, the former a tender elegy, the latter a witty jeu d’esprit that reflects the poet’s limping iambics in both rhythm and melodic contour.
Im Vorübergehen (1836) is an alternative ‘Heidenröslein’ with a ‘happy’ end, whose comfortable, Biedermeier sway betrays its origins as a vocal quartet. (The solo arrangement is by one Fritz Schneider.) Gabriel Seidl’s allegorical poem Die Uhr may seem coyly whimsical to us today. But Loewe’s 1852 setting has a charming delicacy of touch, darkening for a moment of impressive solemnity as the poet imagines the clock stopping for good (‘Doch stände sie einmal stille’). The composer recalled that when he sang the song for the first time in public, a small boy in the audience listened attentively and then sighed: ‘I wish I could have a clock like that too.’
The final four songs here come from the Liederkranz für eine Baßstimme that Loewe wrote around 1859 for a professional bass, August Fricke, who evidently possessed a sonorous middle and bottom register. Meeresleuchten is a languorous—and distinctly Italianate—barcarolle. The image of the grave at the end of the first verse prompts a descent to a sepulchral bottom E. In contrast, Im Sturme is all declamatory vehemence, with the piano evoking the storm in seething tremolandi. Heimlichkeit is set as a lulling pastoral, with a charming flourish to paint the spring bud (‘Knospe der Frühlingszeit’), while the horseman of Reiterlied proclaims his credo (‘I give my blood, I give all I have / To go out riding’) in swaggering bolero rhythms.
Richard Wigmore © 2011