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Strauss, Walter & Marx: Songs

Emma Bell (soprano), Andrew West (piano)
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Recording details: April 2004
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Jeremy Hayes
Release date: September 2004
Total duration: 58 minutes 20 seconds

Exquisite young Soprano Emma Bell, accompanied by pianist Andrew West, performs a selection of German songs by Richard Strauss as well as premiere recordings by Bruno Walter and Joseph Marx.


'This is no fledgling recital disc; Bell strides forth, firmly supported by clear, bright recording, with a clear understanding of the texts and a bronzed vocal timbre' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'As always with Bell, you're left slightly in awe of the sumptuousness of her voice and its tremendous agility over a colossal range, while her pianist Andrew West is suitably impassioned throughout. A treat' (The Guardian)» More

'This is beautiful and engaging singing at the highest level, and when you add the fact that she has chosen a varied and unusual programme, this becomes a disc about which one can get excited … this is a disc to be treasured, and I will be looking for much more from Emma Bell in the future' (Fanfare, USA)» More
In the preface to his memoirs, Theme and Variations, Bruno Walter (1876-1962) felt able to state that “…I have made only the music of others sound forth, I have been but a re-creator.” His life-long enthusiasm for making recordings was to some extent fuelled by his wish that “…something of me will remain after I have gone” as he said during a televised interview made shortly before his death. Walter’s name lives on in the way that he would have hoped—as one of the greatest conductors of the age of recorded sound. Yet fifty years earlier, in 1909, the Viennese critic Richard Specht included Walter in an article entitled “The Young Viennese Composers”, alongside such figures as Schoenberg, Schreker and Zemlinsky. By this time Walter was already a published composer, with a highly-regarded Violin Sonata, a String Quartet, numerous songs and a Mahlerian-scaled Symphony to his name. His career as a composer lasted into his mid-thirties. However, a combination of a crushing workload (he was appointed Generalmusikdirektor in Munich in 1912), an almost unremittingly hostile press and—perhaps—a realisation that he would after all never be a composer of the first rank stilled his creative voice. Although his compositions are all but forgotten today, the best of them—the Violin Sonata and the finest of the songs—are worthy of revival, not only as an illuminating sidelight on the life of one of the major artistic figures of the twentieth century, but for their own sake. The three Heine settings heard here, while clearly drawn from the same well as the contemporaneous music of Zemlinsky, Richard Strauss and Schreker, reveal a distinctive voice; the judgement of Walter’s biographers Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky seems appropriate ‘…admirably crafted and musically unassailable.’ The group of Eichendorff settings has excited the interest of a number of singers over the years, and with good reason. The famous soprano Maria Ivogün, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s teacher, used the delightful, Wolf-like Elfe as an encore, while the entire group was recorded by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Mari Anne Häggander. The three songs for high voice recorded here were dedicated to Walter’s wife Elsa, herself a singer.

Walter, whose tastes did not run to the more radical developments of twentieth century music, would have found a soul-mate in the Austrian composer Joseph Marx (1882-1964). Marx was born in Graz and made his career as teacher, critic and composer largely in Vienna. During his lifetime his music achieved regular performances in Austria and Germany but since his death his music has suffered almost total neglect. The one area of his output that is still explored with any regularity is his 120 or so songs, mostly composed during a four-year burst of activity from 1908 to 1912. The Heyse song in the present group—Hat dich die Liebe berührt—is drawn from that poet’s Italienisches Liederbuch; Marx had the idea of setting those poems omitted from Wolf’s famous set. The virtuoso accompaniment to the Stefan Zweig setting, Ein Drängen ist in meinem Herzen, gives some indication of Marx’s formidable keyboard skills, while the grateful melodic writing and poetically musical atmosphere of, for instance, Traumgekrönt, are the hallmarks of a born song composer.

The collection of folk poetry compiled by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim and published under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn inspired many musical settings, notably Mahler’s celebrated selection. Mahler and Richard Strauss (1864-1949) shared a taste for sardonic humour—Hat gesagt-bleibt’s nicht dabei is just the sort of poem that Mahler relished, while Muttertändelei, in which a mother boasts of her child’s good character to her (no doubt) exasperated friends and neighbours, is musically close to Mahler’s world. Das Rosenband is a rare example of Strauss choosing to set a poem already known in another musical setting—in this case, by Schubert. It was originally conceived in orchestral terms, but arguably benefits from the less calorific piano transcription heard here. Felix Dahn, the author of the Mädchenblumen, was a distinguished historian and minor poet. This rarely-heard group of songs, although not among the composer’s finest, is an example of Strauss’s alchemic ability to transform base metal into something altogether more valuable. Quite what touched Strauss about these sentimental effusions is not known; however, they appealed to something in him, and his settings, especially the lively, sparky Mohnblumen, are both charming and touching. Of all the songs recorded here, perhaps the one that meant most to Strauss was Traum durch die Dämmerung, as it was chosen to represent the composer in the Works of Peace section of Ein Heldenleben. Its author, Otto Julius Bierbaum, was a poet of light verse in an imitation folksong idiom, or as his detractors put it, a Trallalant. Norman Del Mar, in his magisterial study of Strauss, splendidly describes this poem as ‘…an outstandingly beautiful piece of nostalgic nothingness’, out of which Strauss fashioned a song which (Del Mar again) ‘…(possesses) that quality of poignancy with which a Lotte Lehmann can summon tears to the eyes at their very recollection.’

Sandy Matheson 2004

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