A slight change of pace for this piece. Blogging is a privilege that allows us – without any oppressive deadlines or word count restrictions – to immerse ourselves in individual releases when approaching each article. That said, it also makes me acutely aware of those times when there’s a run of discs I love, and I don’t manage to cover them all. The end-of-year round-up is a godsend for featuring some of the ‘ones that got away’, for sure.
But I’m going to pre-empt that somewhat by taking a briefer-than-usual look at three art song releases from the first quarter of 2021 that have all been in constant rotation in my headphones – alongside the magnificent ‘Album für die Frau’ from Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton, which I wrote about here. Thanks to the unpredictable nature (especially, I imagine, during COVID) of recording/release schedules, Middleton also features on two of the albums I look at below. Listening to all three discs so closely together, hearing his rapport with the singers across such a wide range of material, provides ample testament to his sensitivity and versatility.
Starting with mélodies, in fact, rather than lieder: Middleton’s latest release with soprano Louise Alder, ‘Chère Nuit’, is a generous selection of French song. At a full CD-busting 80 minutes, it’s a generous feast with much to recommend it.
In the sleeve notes, Hugh Macdonald writes of salon evenings, where professional musicians would play to private audiences, and this disc does a great job of partly recreating how I imagine that atmosphere must have been. The production (Jonathan Cooper, recording at Potton Hall, Suffolk) is a wonder: Alder, in complete dynamic control, sounds both intimate and yet, for all the world like someone who could lift the roof off – a diva walking among her hushed audience.
The range of material, covering 10 composers, conjures up an image of the performers rifling through a piano bench’s worth of sheet music to find just the right programme. There is a satisfying shape to the recital, with the first quarter-hour given to the piano/vocal version of Ravel’s ‘Scheherazade’ – a suitably theatrical introduction – beautifully undercut by the striking contrast of three Messiaen miniatures. We have bankers Debussy and Poulenc, but at the very centre of the baguette, Alder and Middleton take the opportunity to spotlight two female composers, Viardot and Chaminade. Viardot in particular struck me as a tunesmith of real immediacy, her ‘Havanaise’ providing Alder with a memorable, yet modest showstopper. Single contributions follow from Cateloupe (the playful ‘O up!’) and Bachelet (the epic title track), which allow Alder to dazzle in different ways.
Finally, Middleton again achieves the seemingly impossible, providing a solid foundation through consistency in tone and mood – so there is no sense of disjointedness; these are the same two people in the same room – but while moving through a dizzying array of styles, from the fractured hesitancy of the Messiaen to the breakneck fluidity of Chaminade’s ‘Ronde d’amour’. Bookending the CD is a final ‘encore’-style section of Satie and Yvain, their sway and swing reminding you what a delight the whole evening has been.
‘A Musical Zoo’, the new release with Middleton from bass-baritone Ashley Riches, casts its net even more widely. Every selection features an animal, and the 14 featured composers are arranged broadly in the way you might expect if you were walking round a zoo, by region – or more strictly speaking, by language. The route is German, French, Russian, then English, although the English section has America and England dovetailing around each other, for what I’m sure are stylistic reasons, given the songs concerned. It’s a fun idea, with the illustrated sleeve (and hugely appealing photos of the singer’s cat and apparent muse, Leonora Rubinstein) suggesting further jocularity within. Sure enough, we hear Riches in showbiz crooner mode in Duke’s settings of ‘Ogden Nash’s Musical Zoo’ (pun-drenched pieces averaging around 45 seconds or so: recommended!), tarry with the queasy absurdism of Mussorgsky and Shostakovich’s insect-based tunes, and finish with Britten’s setting of the surreal tale of ‘The Crocodile’.
However, the real power of this collection comes with taking a potentially frivolous concept, and playing it straight. Artists, poets, songwriters – and these days, social media influencers – have long understood how animals seem to have a direct hotline to our emotions. Several songs on the disc take pride of place as moving highlights, notably the tale of ‘The Lion’s Bride’ set by R Schumann, deceptively low-key as it builds towards its tragic ending, and the truly magnificent ‘King David’ by Howells. In his liner notes, Riches calls this ‘perhaps the greatest song in English’, and in his performance, it’s hard to disagree.
The steady progress of the opening accompaniment and almost plainchant stateliness of the vocal reflect Howell’s inclination to choral music. But Howells develops a three-chord figure of unforgettable poignancy which is, at first, buried and distorted as the harps – also perfectly captured in a few broken chords that simulate the fingers gliding across the strings – summoned by the king fail to ease his pain. At a moment of sublime resolution between the voice and piano figure, the nightingale’s call is introduced by the piano, weaving around the vocal line. The song sustains this blissful state as David’s sorrows finally ease. The ability here of Riches to convey the king regaining his strength, while maintaining the tenderness of the ending, is one of those quiet effects that manages to be utterly overwhelming.
This gentle imitation of the nightingale leads me to another brilliant reason for choosing the zoo theme: the onomatopoeic examples of the piano impersonating or suggesting various members of the animal kingdom. Wolf’s ‘Ratcatcher’ puts us instantly in mind of the scurrying rodents as Middleton races around the top end of the keyboard, while Ravel gives us the scraping of crickets’ wings in gentle, repetitive dissonances.
The tenor Ilker Arcayürek made his art song debut on disc with Simon Lepper in 2017, with the all-Schubert recording ‘Der Einsame’. I thoroughly enjoyed that album, so was pleased to see the duo return with another Franz-filled follow-up this year, ‘The Path of Life’. While the earlier recording’s theme lent it an overall ‘mood’, Arcayürek explains in his sleeve note that this time the concept is more roomy: stages of life in five sections (‘Love’, ‘Longing’, ‘A Quest for Inner Peace’, ‘Resignation’, ‘Redemption’), fashioning a new, imaginary cycle of sorts from Schubert’s stand-alone lieder.
This proves an ingenious way to give the entire recital some unity. Even though the disc explores a range of different styles, speeds and sounds, there are some lovely transitions that help the sequence feel ‘continuous’ (the ‘lilt’ of ‘An Sylvia’ into ‘Alinde’, for example, or the propulsive shift from ‘Bei dir allein!’ into ‘Lachen und Weinen’).
To these ears, Arcayürek and Lepper seem especially well suited to each other. The tenor has a warm, expansive timbre that could dominate, but Lepper’s nimble lightness of touch has him moving through and around the voice. The stunning performance of ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ is a case in point – Lepper’s cascades of notes circling the vocal melody and thoughtful, subtle tempo variations lending a familiar song some unpredictability. The opening ‘Fischerweise’ takes this further as Lepper’s lightning-speed ‘ripples’ urge Arcayürek onwards; much the same energy, and similar terrific work with the bassline, drives a thrilling version of ‘Wilkommen und Abschied’.
The album draws to a close by coming full circle (referencing ‘Fischerweise’) with a song that was a discovery for me, ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’. Arcayürek explicitly frames it as their ‘Der Leiermann’, and like the ‘Winterreise’ closer, it has a stop-start hesitancy that could signal either a winding-down, or a pause before life continues. This song is achingly gorgeous, a tender love song at face value but, appropriately enough, with darker undercurrents – generally reflective of this beautiful album.
All three releases are warmly recommended, and can be ordered from recommended retailer Presto: https://www.prestomusic.com/classical
You can also buy from the record labels directly:
Alder / Middleton: https://www.chandos.net/products/catalogue/CHAN%2020222
Riches / Middleton: https://www.chandos.net/products/catalogue/CHAN%2020184
Arcayürek / Lepper: https://prospero.8merch.com/product/franz-schubert-the-path-of-life-cd/
Please note that the physical version (CD) of ‘The Path of Life’ is limited to 1,000 copies and may be available as download only in the near future.