The period from the death of Schubert in 1828 to the annus mirabilis of 1840 when well over 100 songs poured forth from the pen of Robert Schumann is often thought of as the decade that 19th-century song forgot. The third volume of Malcolm Martineau’s ear-opening ‘Decades’ series is therefore especially welcome, disproving such easy judgments, particularly for those prepared to look outside of the German-speaking world.

Not that some very fine Germans weren’t at work – Felix Mendelssohn and his increasingly respected sister Fanny to name but two – but in France Berlioz was actively exploring the genre, while there were the first stirrings of a Russian school in the form of the occasionally heard Alexander Dargomyzhsky and his forgotten compatriots Alexander Alyabyev and Alexander Varlamov. The other composers here are the always underrated Meyerbeer, the still neglected Carl Loewe, father of the Romantic ballad, and Schubert’s friend Franz Lachner who sank into oblivion after Hans von Bülow usurped his role in Munich.

These were turbulent times, and one of Martineau’s more revolutionary moves is to show how much more forward thinking than her brother was Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn). The young British soprano Soraya Mafi gives us three of Fanny’s finest, her choice of Hölty, Heine and Goethe displaying a fine nose for a classy lyric. Mafi’s silvery tone is perfect for a romantic nocturne like Die Mainacht.

Angelika Kirchschlager, who replies with four of Felix’s offerings, is no longer fresh enough of tone for youthful open-air utterances like Frühlingslied and Das Waldschloss, but she’s never a dull singer and brings lyrical intelligence to a skipping serenade like Pagenlied. Elsewhere she finesses four songs from Loewe’s setting of Chamisso’s Frauenliebe und Leben (a full decade before Schumann got there). The characterful singing contest of Der Kuckuck Und Die Nachtigall, however, is not her finest hour.

Another veteran singer, Lorna Anderson, exhibits far less wear and tear in Berlioz’s Je Crois En Vous and the two charming Meyerbeer melodies, either of which might have come straight out of Dinorah. La Folle De St Joseph, sentimental lament though it may be, deserves far wider currency.

John Mark Ainsley brings his customary elegance to three attractive folk-inflected ditties by Lachner, all of which are decidedly Schubertian, if lacking the same spark of genius.

Finally, bass-baritone Alexey Gusev brings a heroic tone to bear on a Russian repertoire that finds the air of the Steppe blowing though the Parisian salon. Beautifully recorded with fascinating notes. More please.


Performer: John Mark Ainsley t, Lorna Anderson s, Alexey Gusev b-bar, Angelika Kirchschlager ms, Soraya Mafi s, Malcolm Martineau p
Catalogue Number: Vivat VIVAT116