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Songs to the moon

The Myrthen Ensemble, Joseph Middleton (piano) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: May 2015
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jens Braun
Engineered by Jens Braun & Chris Kalcov
Release date: April 2016
Total duration: 80 minutes 44 seconds

Songs to the moon presents the phenomenal Myrthen Ensemble—Mary Bevan, Clara Mouriz, Allan Clayton, Marcus Farnsworth and Joseph Middleton—in what is incredibly its debut recording. The classy programme of songs, duets and ensembles delights the listener through music by Brahms, Schumann, Fauré and many others, and is a masterclass in how these things should be done.


'A particular attraction is the inclusion of less well-known duets and quartets, which add to the convival atmosphere' (Financial Times)» More

'There are performances of individual distinction … well worth exploring' (Classical Ear)» More

'This is a lovely disc, one of those in which the different items seem to set each other off' (Planet Hugill)

Peter Warlock quickly realized that he was unable to compose in large scale forms, and his work list is made up almost entirely of songs and choral music. Following the publication of his first songs—characterized by highly singable melodies and an accompaniment that supports but never overwhelms the voice with a fine blend of original harmonies and skilful part-writing—he devoted most of his time to editing a controversial magazine, The Sackbut. In 1921, however, at his mother’s home in Wales, he began the most prolific period of his composing life, wrote hundreds of transcriptions, a book on Delius and some fine compositions. The Three Belloc Songs date 1926, and this fascinating CD of nocturnal songs opens with The night, in which Warlock instructs the singer to sing soft and chant-like, very slowly, as the poet beseeches ‘Most Holy Night’ to ‘cheat me with your false delight’ and grant him repose in death. The song, which rarely rises above p and ends ppp, requires a peerless legato.

The Brahms group opens with Nächtens, the second song of Op 112, for SATB. This is no serene nocturne, but one of illusion, grief, anxiety and madness, mirrored in the unusual and restless 5/4 metre. The four duets of Opus 28, from which we hear the second, were composed between 1860 and 1862, published in 1864 and dedicated to Frau Amalie Joachim, who had recently married the celebrated violinist, and whose dark contralto was soon to perform many of Brahms finest Lieder. Vor der Tür (a seventeenth century poem taken from Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s Die deutschen Gesellschaftslieder des 16. und 17 Jahrhunderts), begins in a solo manner, as first the man pleads to be let in, and then the woman refuses his request. The voices join in the third verse, but she remains firm, and the lover is left, as in ‘Vergebliches Ständchen’, to languish outside. Unbewegte laue Luft, like Mozart’s ‘An Chloe’ and Richard Strauss’s ‘Ständchen’, culminates in music of undisguised sexual fulfilment. The very first phrase introduces the chromaticism that lends an erotic charge to the song. The stillness is broken by right hand trills that depict the splashing of a fountain; then, with a change of tempo, agitated broken chords in the accompaniment and rising vocal phrases, the music begins to express the ardour of the poet’s words. Der Gang zum Liebchen from Op 48 was composed in 1858—a strophic setting of a folksong Brahms had found in the second volume of the Kretschmer-Zuccalmaglio Deutsche Volkslieder collection, where it appeared under the title ‘From the Lower Rhine’. It’s an intimate song with a broad cantilena and a codetta-like postlude that comments on the final vocal phrase in both the middle and the bass register. Walpurgisnacht, like all the duets of Opus 75, is of the dialogue type. The two sopranos depict the mother and child. The girl’s questions become more and more agitated as she gradually realizes that her mother was not only present at the Walpurgis Night celebrations but is actually a witch; as in Loewe’s ‘Edward’, a series of exchanges reveals successive layers of dreadful truths, which are intensified by ever more dramatic music. Clara Schumann, it is said, trembled happily at the noises in the chimney (stanza 8), and pitied those who could only giggle.

Ständchen, to a poem by Franz Kugler, was inspired by the voice of the beautiful Agathe Siebold, and contains a cryptic reference to her name (Gathe) in the opening melody. Kugler’s poem mentions not only zithers, but flutes and fiddles too.

When the serenaders are introduced in verse 2, the violin and flute can be heard duetting in sixths, while alternating spread chords introduce the third instrument at ‘Zither’ and ‘spielen’. We learn in the final verse that the girl chooses the fair-haired lover and ditches the other two. The unrequited lover standing outside his sweetheart’s door or window is a recurring theme of many Brahms songs—an indication of the composer’s timidity and lack of confidence in his dealings with the fair sex. Schiller’s poem Der Abend describes Phoebus in his chariot being drawn down the sky by his horses, as evening falls. Verse two depicts Thetis, one of the sea deities, rising from the waves and smiling seductively at the sun god. Brahms transforms this stock Classical theme into something special. After the galloping horses (to a staccato piano accompaniment) reach Thetis, and Phoebus springs from his chariot into her arms, there is a wonderful moment of inspiration. As the piano falls silent to indicate that the chariot has halted, the horses drink deeply from the ocean in long, melting, legato phrases, marked dolce and diminuendo. The succession of dotted minims and the fermata at the end of the song suggest that Phoebus is now at rest in post-coital bliss! Brahms found the poem Vergebliches Ständchen in the Deutsche Volkslieder collection, edited by Kretschmer and Zuccalmaglio, and it is one of his finest and wittiest songs which he professed, in a letter to Hanslick, to prize above all others. Singer and accompanist are instructed to perform ‘lebhaft und gut gelaunt’ (with animation and good humour), and Gerald Moore in Singer and accompanist (Methuen, 1953) is surely right to interpret the sforzando, three bars from the end, as the sound of the window being slammed by the young girl in her lover’s face.

And so to Schumann. The text of Unterm Fenster from Op 34 was changed significantly by the composer: every other line in the Burns original ended with the impossible to sing “quo’ Findlay”, which Gerhard rendered variously as ‘Ich bin es!’, ‘Gar Süßes!’, ‘O öffne!’, ‘Mit Freuden!’ and other rapturous exclamations. Schumann responded with a pulsing song in A major, at the end of which Findlay, like Schumann, eventually triumphed. Eichendorff’s Mondnacht speaks of sky and earth, age-old symbols for male and female, and their imagined kiss inspired in Schumann a motif of descending fifths in the piano’s left hand that first appears in bars 10-13, and is then repeated three more times, thus binding sky and earth—and the whole song—together. The motif, in German notation, reads E-H-E (marriage). Cryptology was dear to Schumann’s heart, and his message must have been crystal clear to Clara, who had already received a letter from him, in which he described ‘Ehe’ as a ‘sehr musikalisches Wort’. The Zwei Venetianische Lieder (both translations by Freiligrath of poems from Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies) are from Myrthen, Schumann’s wedding present to Clara. Wenn durch die Piazzetta, the second of the two, is a song about elopement, and is printed as song 18—or R: did Robert regard this as a reference to his own role in whisking Clara away from her father’s clutches? In the first of the songs, Schumann, via Thomas Moore, consciously says farewell to bachelordom. Die Lotosblume (also from Myrthen) is marked ‘sehr langsam’ (‘very slowly’); this rapt love song, like ‘Widmung’, boasts a melody of miraculous beauty; no matter if the prosody is not quite right (the rest between ‘ängstigt’ and ‘sich’ is syntactically awkward), the magical tune more than makes up for any technical shortcomings in word-setting. In der Nacht from the Spanisches Liederspiel more than matches Wolf’s great version of the same text. It is set as a duet for soprano and tenor, and expresses the lovers’ mutual passion in a long and aching vocal phrase, begun by the soprano, echoed by the tenor and then finally shared. There can be no deeper expression in the entire song repertoire of the power of love to banish sleep.

Song, opera and choral works represent over half of Samuel Barber’s output. Born in 1910, he started writing for the voice at a precocious age, and was encouraged by his aunt, Louise Homer, the Metropolitan Opera contralto, whose husband was the distinguished song composer Sidney Homer. Barber tells how she, after an exhausting day in the recording studio with the likes of Caruso and Galli-Curci, would often sing through his early songs, such as ‘Daisies’, written in 1927. Nocturne, the last of his Four Songs Op 13, was composed in 1940 to a poem by his friend Frederic Prokosch who, in his memoirs, Voices, relates how one day he heard Sir Thomas Beecham informally singing, to his own accompaniment, “my good friend Samuel Barber’s setting of my poem ‘Nocturne.’”

Dame Elizabeth Maconchy, more attracted by the European modernism of Bartók and Janáček than English pastoralism, composed in a great variety of forms, including song, favouring such poets as Byron, Day Lewis, Donne, Hopkins, MacNeice, Shelley, Shakespeare and Traherne. Sun, Moon and Stars (Maconchy’s title), the first song of a cycle of four, known by the same name, sets a poem from Traherne’s Centuries III, 2—a series of meditations in which the poet, recognizing that he is God’s child, exults in all aspects of God’s creation on earth. The conscious delight in all these divine manifestations expresses the mutual love felt between him and God. This rapturous joy—unparalleled in any other writer of the seventeenth century, except perhaps Barthold Hinrich Brockes in his Irdisches Vergnügen in Gott (see Handel’s Neun Deutsche Lieder)—is expressed in a poetic prose, reminiscent of the heightened diction of the Psalms, that breathes a wonderful sense of peace and rapture, quite unclouded by any notion of original sin. The reader is encouraged to view God’s creation with the wonder and simplicity of a child.

Clair de lune, one of Verlaine’s most celebrated poems from Fêtes galantes, has been set by a huge variety of composers, including Debussy (twice), Fauré, Charpentier, Diepenbrock and Josef Szulc. Szulc belonged to a family of famous Polish musicians, and his Dix Mélodies sur des poésies de Verlaine, Op 83, are divided between high and low voice. Made famous by a recording with Maggie Teyte and Gerald Moore (1941), his ‘Clair de lune’ is a fine song that is not entirely eclipsed by the more famous settings by Fauré and Debussy.

Frederic Mompou (1893-1987), like Manuel de Falla, lived for a time (from 1911-1914 and again between 1921 and 1941) in Paris; his mother was of French descent, and Paris was for many Catalans not only a cultural Mecca but also a haven from the repressive centralist Spanish state in the early years of the twentieth century. Several of Mompou’s forty or so songs—some of them composed to French texts by Paul Valéry and others—were published in Paris by Editions Salabert, and the first set of his Comptines were dedicated to Jane Bathori, the French soprano who created Ravel’s Schéhérazade and Histoires naturelles. Mompou returned to his native Barcelona with the fall of France, and died there in 1987. Many of his songs are to Catalan texts, the most beautiful of which is Damunt de tu només les flors (‘Above you naught but flowers’), the first song of Combat del somni (1942) to a text by the Catalan poet Josep Janés.

The text of Guitares et mandolines is by the composer himself, so Saint-Saëns joins that select breed, which includes Schubert, Schumann, Cornelius, Messiaen, Berlioz and Koechlin, who set their own words to music. The song is one of many evocations of Spain in the song repertoire—the repeated right hand notes of the accompaniment cleverly suggest the plucking of the plectrum.

Mallarmé’s Apparition was written when he was twenty years old, and Debussy’s setting dates from 1884, when the poet was largely unknown. He dedicated it to Mme Marie-Blanche Vasnier, the wife of a Parisian architect who, with her husband, fostered the young composer’s talent by inviting him regularly to their home, where she in her high soprano would perform his most recent songs. Their friendship developed into a passion, and before he left for Rome Debussy presented her with a slim volume of 13 songs.

Théodore de Banville, a poet favoured by the young Debussy and vilified by the even younger Rimbaud, has been widely set by mélodie composers who detected a melodic immediacy, a structural simplicity and an emotional directness about his poetry. La nuit comes from the Rondels composés à la manière de Charles d’Orléans, a collection of 24 poems, of which Reynaldo Hahn set 12—not as many as the quirky Charles Koechlin who composed 23 of the 24. Koechlin set ‘La nuit’ as a solo song and Hahn as a piano accompanied choral trio for sopranos, contraltos and tenors. Chausson’s duet, composed in September 1883, is one of his happiest songs and is remarkable for the way in which the accompaniment—now semiquavers, now quavers—gradually descend the stave to depict the sunset and the ensuing content.

Paul Verlaine was one of Reynaldo Hahn’s favourite poets, and on a famous occasion, at the house of Alphonse Daudet in 1893, Sibil Sanderson (the dedicatee of ‘L’énamourée’) performed Hahn’s Verlaine cycle, Chansons grises, in front of the poet. Verlaine, who did not care for Fauré’s settings of his poems, was greatly moved by Hahn’s songs, and wept as he listened. L’heure exquise is the fifth song of the set, and should be heard in a remarkable performance recorded in 1929 by Ninon Vallin with Hahn himself at the piano (EMI, Références).

Henri Duparc’s output is exiguous: no more than seventeen songs survive, but on them rests his reputation as one of the greatest composers in the history of the mélodie. They were composed between the ages of twenty and thirty-seven, after which he lived for another forty-eight years without publishing—and hardly writing—another note. Unlike Fauré, three years his senior, who by the age of twenty had already produced a fair corpus of juvenile songs, Duparc’s first mélodies, from ‘Chanson triste’ on, reveal his fully developed genius. La fuite (1871) sets a poem by Théophile Gautier and takes the form of a duet between Kadidja and Ahmed. The girl suggests to her lover that they should elope together, and when he proves faint-hearted, she assures him that her eyelashes will shade him from the sun and, if there’s no water along the route, they will drink the tears of her joy. There is also a setting by Bizet.

Jules Massenet’s mélodies have been somewhat sidelined in recent years—not without some justification. He probably composed too many songs (with over 260 to his credit he is one of the most prolific of all composers of mélodies), and he chose poems that were decidedly second or third rate. You look in vain on any worklist for the great poets of France, although—oddly—he was the first composer to set a Verlaine poem: the beautiful duet Rêvons, c’est l’heure (1871), which is known as ‘L’heure exquise’ in other famous settings.

Gabriel Fauré composed more than 100 mélodies, and was very little influenced by contemporaries such as Debussy and Ravel. The style of his songs develops from the gracefully melodic early mélodies, through the productive second period, to the late songs—mostly cycles—which display a simplicity, austerity and purity that are quite unlike anything else in song literature. Clair de lune, Fauré’s first Verlaine setting, dates from 1887, five years after Debussy’s version of the same poem. It is one of his finest compositions, a piano piece with vocal obbligato of breathtaking beauty that evokes the masked figures of the commedia dell’ arte in an eighteenth century landscape, familiar to us from the paintings of Antoine Watteau. With a touch of genius, Fauré allows the voice to mingle with the piano accompaniment at the moment when Verlaine describes the song of the masqueraders blending with the moonlight: ‘Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune’). The key is B flat minor and should not be tampered with, since this tonality expresses so perfectly the wistfulness of the poem. Pleurs d’or (1896) was composed in London for a concert in St James’s Hall on 1 May 1896. The original title was ‘Larmes’, but Fauré, fearing that this would be confused with his earlier Richepin setting, asked the poet Samain to supply a new title. This delicious duet, with its long descending whole-tone phrases and triplet arpeggio accompaniment, is a fine way to end a shared Fauré recital. And so is Tarentelle, a setting of a poem by Marc Monnier which, in Monnier’s Poésies, is followed by a sequel which reveals that the Tarantella is set in Naples. Fauré composed this virtuoso duet while he was in love with Marianne Viardot, and the operatic arrangement was destined to be sung by Marianne and her sister Claudie. This technically difficult moto perpetuo music, quivering with erotic melismas, was first performed with the other duet of Op 10 (‘Puisqu’ici-bas toute âme’) during a concert of the Société Nationale de la Musique on 10 April 1875. With Messager’s help, Fauré orchestrated it later in the year.

Richard Stokes © 2016

Art-song exists in western music as one of the most intimate and concentrated modes of expression; the delivery of a text and its music are communicated through the medium of the natural human voice and a piano. The wish to explore the chamber-music element of this life-enhancing art form was the thinking behind the Myrthen Ensemble’s inception and for our début disc together we wanted to record the very first programme we explored. The idea of programming a CD around a theme is not new of course, but we hope nevertheless that presenting these songs, bound together as they are with a leitmotif, will interest the listener and throw new light on well-known repertoire as well as uncovering a few lesser-known gems.

The moon has, since antiquity, inspired artists, musicians and wordsmiths. The programme on this disc looks to its many characteristics for inspiration. The songs are at turns consoling, sometimes seductive in serenades and occasionally paint the moon as a threatening force through its extinguishing of the suns rays. The moon’s silver beams cast their magic in music by Brahms and Schumann in the first of these CDs and in the second, inspire the exquisite treatment of Clair de lune by a selection of the finest French song composers. Short English nocturnal overtures begin each disc. A lunar landscape provides much material for the keen listener willing to delve into the highways and byways of the song literature and we hope you enjoy this repertoire as much as we do.

Joseph Middleton © 2016

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