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Choral director, composer and musicologist, Clytus Gottwald turns his attention to complex and masterly choral arrangements of works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Works by European composers including Wagner, Mahler, Debussy and Webern are arranged in up to sixteen parts, performed by the Rodolfus Choir, directed by Ralph Allwood.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is well-known as one of the most important figures in the history of opera, which he believed to be the ultimate form of artistic expression. Indeed, he wrote comparatively few works of any substance which were not in some way associated with one of his ‘Music Dramas’. As their title suggests, the two ‘Studies for Tristan und Isolde’ performed here in arrangement are no exception. Having fled Dresden after the Revolution in 1849, Wagner and his wife arrived in Zurich, where, for some years, they relied heavily upon the financial assistance of a number of well-heeled admirers. One such was Otto Wesendonck, a retired silk merchant, who provided Wagner with generous support from 1852, and, in April 1857, furnished the Wagners with a small house near to the villa into which he and his wife Mathilde were shortly to move. Around this time a love affair began to develop between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck, which was eventually to find its artistic expression in Tristan und Isolde. In the meantime she sent him a set of five poems which she had written, which Wagner set to music in 1857-8. Of these five Wesendonck Lieder, two found their way into the completed opera: Im Treibhaus provided material for the opening scene of Act III, while Träume was the starting point for the love duet in Act II.
If, for Wagner, music found its ultimate expression in the context of Music Drama, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is remembered primarily as a symphonist—though his legacy of orchestral lieder is also substantial. Indeed, the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, originally written in 1883-5 and orchestrated in the 1890s, formed the basis for his First Symphony, which was completed in 1888. Die zwei blauen Augen is the fourth and last song in this cycle; the music of this song was the source of much of the material of the Symphony’s third movement (famous for its ironic treatment of Frère Jaques in the style of a funeral march), in particular the F major middle section, which is based on the latter half of the song. By contrast, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was always conceived as an orchestral song, and is one of five settings of Ruckert written in 1901-2. Mahler’s reading of the poem instils in it a compelling sense of isolation and longing (without Mahler’s music to guide us we might be tempted to read the poem as somewhat self-satisfied!) which, in the original orchestration is beautifully conveyed through fairly small orchestral forces. This beautiful simplicity of scoring lends itself particularly well to choral adaptation; the finished result is breathtakingly effective.
The reputation of the composer Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) rests almost exclusively on his gifts as a song-writer; indeed, he was arguably the most important composer of lieder in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His understanding and interpretation of poetry, and the imagination and sensitivity of his piano accompaniments, are perhaps unrivalled amongst composers of his generation, yet, while taking on board the harmonic developments of the mid-late nineteenth century, he nonetheless remained firmly rooted in the song-writing tradition of Schubert and Schumann. Relatively few of his songs exist in orchestral versions, especially compared to his contemporary Mahler, for example. The four somewhat contrasting songs set here were not conceived as a cycle by Wolf (though all but the first are from his 1888 collection of Mörike settings), but nonetheless represent him at the peak of his art, and provide the scope for imaginative choral readings. In Und willst du deinen Liebsten sterben sehen, the richness of Wolf’s chordal accompaniment is brought out with increased counterpoint in Gottwald’s 16-part setting, which reflects well the fairly abstract tone of the poem. The word-painting is more direct in Das verlaßene Mägdlein, where the crowing of the cock is almost more successfully depicted by the upper voices of the choir than the piano in the original solo song. Auf ein altes Bild is a poetic reflection on a late medieval painting of the Virgin and Child; here Gottwald has intensified the symbolism of Wolf’s chordal, hymn-like piano accompaniment by choosing a 12th century Latin hymn celebrating the Virgin and Child, to which Wolf’s accompaniment is set, while the sopranos and altos sing the song melody. Likewise, in the final song, Der Gärtner, Gottwald has provided a reading of the poem which draws attention to the impossibility of the love of the gardener for the princess who rides past on her horse, both through his own poetry, to which he sets Wolf’s cantering accompaniment, but also through the slow-moving tenor line, which symbolises, in Gottwald’s words, ‘the barrier, which rigidly and insurmountably separates the worlds of master and servant’.
Of the three works by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) performed here, only two were originally songs for voice and piano. Les angélus dates from 1891—relatively late in his oeuvre of chansons, though before his most groundbreaking orchestral and piano music was written—Debussy very much started off as a song composer. It nonetheless displays a number of the hallmarks typical of his harmonic style. Pentatonic and whole-tone harmonies mingle, while the melody—a fairly aimless one at that—in turn emerges from and recedes back into the accompanimental texture, a feature that is particularly well brought out in Gottwald’s arrangement for six upper voices. Soupir, by contrast, is a late song, the first of the Trois Poèmes de Mallarmé, written in 1913—coincidentally, since, unbeknown to Debussy, Ravel had set two of the same poems in his own setting of Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, written in the same year, of which his own setting of Soupir is also included in arrangement on this disc. Both composers responded to Mallarmé’s words in a fairly adventurous way. For Debussy this resulted in the alternation of unusually dissonant harmonies with the use of sparse textures (in the original there are several phrases sung by solo voice alone without accompaniment). Des pas sur la neige was originally composed in 1909, not as a song but as a piano piece, published a year later in the first book of Préludes. In this arrangement, Clytus Gottwald has chosen words by Rilke and Mallarmé which seem to suit both the idea and the notes of Debussy’s music.
If the adventurousness of Debussy’s Mallarmé settings can be found in his use of plain textures and obscure harmonies, in the settings by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) it is primarily to be found in the refinement of his instrumentation—in their original version they are scored for piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, piano and string quartet. Gottwald has reflected this to a certain degree in the arrangement performed here; at two points he calls upon certain sections of the choir to whistle their parts—no mean feat given the complexity of his harmonies. Like Debussy’s, the harmonies are sophisticated in their chromaticism, but invariably resulting in colour, warmth and sonority.
Anton Webern (1883-1945) and Alban Berg (1885-1935) are best known as the two pupils of Arnold Schoenberg whose twelve-tone compositions, along with those of their teacher, came to define the Second Viennese School. The songs presented here, however, are all youthful works, particularly so in the case of Webern, who was still in his teens when he wrote the earliest of his Eight early songs (1901-4), of which four are performed here in arrangement. All four originals are brief and concise utterances, though beautiful; one might be tempted to feel that Gottwald’s choral arrangements make them altogether weightier pieces. While in Tief von fern, the chordal simplicity of Webern’s original piano accompaniment is maintained in the choral version, Heiter, by contrast, represents a fairly liberal arrangement. In the arranger’s own words, ‘this song has been interpreted…from the viewpoint of the more mature Webern. The setting was not transcribed based on its harmonic substance, but rather it was reduced to one of its intervallic structures’. The result is an arrangement which, though it follows the overall harmonic and melody shape of the song, is rather more contrapuntal and sparse in sonority than the original. The original atmosphere is rather more easily maintained in the short but intense Der Tod, where the full dynamic range and tessitura is exploited, while in Sommerabend, the pastoral-sounding 6/8 metre holds sway, though the simplicity of expression of the solo voice and piano in Webern’s original song is replaced in the choral arrangement by a richer sense of reverie and longing.
The three songs by Alban Berg which are presented here, however, are taken from Seven Youthful Songs, written between 1905-8, which Berg selected and orchestrated in 1932. These songs, a little more substantial than Webern’s, are rooted in a chromatic late-romantic tonal language. In 1910 Schoenberg commented that the young Berg had initially seemed ‘unable to compose anything other than songs’. The highly vocal and often contrapuntal approach to instrumental writing which characterises Berg’s early work is certainly in evidence in these songs, even in their 1932 orchestrated versions, making them ideal for choral adaptation. The simple phrases and imitative texture of the charming Im Zimmer might well be considered to display the sort of vocal traits of which Schoenberg complained; Die Nachtigall contains more pianistic elements in the accompaniment, though bears choral treatment well with little adaptation. Traumgekrönt, the longest song of the three, held particularly fond memories for the composer, as it was written during the courtship of his wife-to-be, Helene Nahowski, and he quotes Rilke’s poem in a letter written to her immediately after he had finished the song. They were married in 1910.
The fame of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), like that of Wagner, rests on his work as a composer of opera, though he belongs to the Italian opera tradition rather than the German; he is popularly thought of as Verdi’s successor. The familiar aria Oh! mio babbino caro is from the fairly burlesque one-act opera Gianni Schicchi, a late work first performed in New York in December 1918, whose libretto was inspired by a reference in Danté’s Divine Comedy. In the aria, Lauretta melodramatically threatens to throw herself from the Ponte Vecchio into the Arno if her father will not consent to her marriage to the man she loves.
The compositions of André Caplet (1878-1925) have tended to be somewhat overshadowed by those of his elder contemporary Debussy, to whom he owed a great deal in terms of stylistic influence. In turn, Debussy admired Caplet’s work and the two men became good friends. Debussy was even happy to delegate to Caplet the orchestration of a significant part of Le martyre de Saint Sébastien in 1911, and he conducted the first performance. Indeed, it was initially as a gifted conductor that Caplet gained recognition; only after the war did he devote himself fully to composition. Le Miroir de Jésus, a cantata written in 1923, based on poems by Henri Ghéon and steeped in Catholic mysticism, can be reckoned amongst his finest works. The original scoring is for mezzo soprano, female voices, harp and strings. Each of the movements of the cantata contains a musical ‘title piece’, and these have been retained in Gottwald’s arrangements of three of the eighteen movements, one from each of the three parts of the cantata, which relate respectively to the incarnation, suffering and glory of Jesus Christ.
Matthew O'Donovan © 2007