On Flax and Fire, operatic tenor Stuart Jackson offers a recording of love songs from the romantic repertoire of Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt and Hugo Wolf, with more contemporary works by William Denis Browne and Benjamin Britten.
Britten opens the album with homages to Purcell but I really started to listen from track three. Um Mitternacht (At Midnight), after a poem by Goethe, has an entrancing musical setting by Britten. A man reflects on his boyhood and a walk he made at midnight marvelling at the stars. Now he is in love and the stars represent not only his burgeoning desire but the journey he has made through life.
Jackson’s vocal line has an ethereal distant quality when he interprets the boy in his gentle, high tenor. The piano intervenes as starry notes in the upper register or ghostly mounting chords, indicating the tread of the narrator. Jackson descends to the lower register as the man. Discordant note progressions indicate uncertainty in the man’s psyche but by the end harmony returns.
Four Wolf songs follow, set to text by German poet, Eduard Möriker, a Lutheran pastor and Romantic poet and novelist. Wolf had a gift for choosing beautiful poetry but what is even more striking listening to Jackson sing Peregrina 1 and An die Geliebte, composed in 1888, is how modern and fresh the openings sound. This is accentuated by Jackson’s calm, vocal delivery in the beginning, stripped of operatic frill. Wolf’s lieder however are more complex, as added unusual cadences take the music in interesting directions. His admiration for Wagner comes out in the rumbling keyboard in the background. Jackson expresses perfectly the tormented frustrations of the romantic narrator thwarted in his desires.
I was in two minds about Mörike’s libretto in Nimmersatte Liebe (Insatiable Love) : ’When we kissed today/The girl kept nicely quiet and still, Like a lamb beneath the knife’. The lines are sung in an upbeat and ironic tone but frankly the lover is borderline abusive. It probably appealed to Wolf’s dark humour, Wolf being the ultimate bad boy when he wanted to be. By contrast, Wolf’s Verschwiegene Liebe (Silent Love) with beautiful text by Eichendorff, was both lyrical and moving.
Liszt’s compositions that follow require Jackson to switch from German to Italian and I was delighted with the result. Jackson is the Italianate tenor par excellence! Operatic high sustained notes are handled with gusto by Jackson. The Lisztian style, full of razzamatazz and virtuoso piano parts, was something that pianist, Jocelyn Freeman, took in her stride. Most notable however was the quieter, tender I’ vidi in terra (Petrarca) I beheld on earth angelic grace, with its haunting piano opening and Chopinesque development. This wistful aria with bursts of high passion ran through my head for days!
Robert Schumann’s gentle lieder were an antidote to Wolf’s and Liszt’s fire. Particularly enjoyed Stirb’Lieb’ und Freud (Die, love and joy) about a man enamoured with a profoundly devout maid.
A rich album and one which highlights Jackson’s highly expressive tenor and linguistic capabilities. A real feast!
Flax and Fire, Songs of Devotion is released on Orchid Classics on 17th July. https://www.orchidclassics.com/releases/orc100139-stuart-jackson-jocelyn-freeman/