Malcolm Martineau’s essential guide to a century of song reaches volume four in a decade dominated by the full flowering of Schumann, but one that shows composers questing for new directions even if, with the exception of Mendelssohn, none of the others here quite deserve a place at the top table.

Decades: A Century of Song Volume 4

1840 is our starting point, and the earlier of Schumann’s two cycles by the name of Liederkreis. The composer’s Op. 24 is a setting of nine songs by Heine on themes of love and despair, the vaguest of cycles, but classic Schumann none the less. Austrian baritone Florian Boesch brings his usual perspicacity to bear on these masterpieces with Martineau, one of his regular collaborators, an insightful partner. These are performances full of fantasy, Boesch’s voice ranging from a thrusting stridency to a parlando whisper. Just listen to a tiny jewel like “Es treibt mich hin” (I’m driven this way) to hear the kind of organic flexibility that singer and pianist deploy to draw you in. Ditto the word painting and percussive portrayal of the sinister coffin maker in “Lieb’ Liebchen” (My love) and the unhinged rant of “Warte, warte, wildes Schiffmann” (Wait, O wait wild seaman). In the hands of such imaginative artists, the concluding “Mit Myrten und Rosen” (With myrtles and roses) becomes the most moving of valedictions.

Before he returns us to Germany, Martineau takes us on side trips through Russia, Scandinavia, France and Italy. Anush Hovhannisyan’s Slavic-sounding soprano does little to persuade us that Dargomïzhsky’s songs are more than salon trifles, one foot in Paris, the other in Poland. “I confess it, uncle,” sung by baritone Alexey Gusev is lively enough, however, and looks ahead to the spicier fare of The Mighty Heap.

Four early songs by César Franck are stronger and surprisingly sensual. “Souvenance” (Memories) is Schubert with a French twist and convincingly sung by English lyric tenor Nick Pritchard. The elegant “Le Sylphe” is a real turn up, but any of these ditties might deserve a place on the recital stage.

English tenor Oliver Johnston is slightly challenged by a pair of operatic-inflected songs by Donizetti, neither overly memorable. Conversely, all four Swedish songs by three different composers, none of them familiar in the slightest, merit greater attention mixing a parlour song immediacy (Lindblad’s “A summer day” and “Evening”) with a nod to contemporary German Lied (Jacobson’s “Serenade” and Geijer’s “The night sky”). Swedish mezzo-soprano Ida Evelina Ränzlöv is a warm presence and authoritative guide.

Four late songs by Mendelssohn, judiciously chosen, form the pendant to the disc sung by the young German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn. They are charming affairs, though certainly no advance on Schumann. Hasselhorn’s clean, virile tone and straightforward delivery suits them down to the ground and his playful take on “Warnung vor dem Rhein” (Beware of the Rhine) with its warnings of the sinful distractions young men might find in the vicinity of Germany’s favourite river sends the listener off on a jaunty high.

The 1840s saw the premature demise of Mendelssohn and the descent of Schumann into madness, ending with the European-wide social unrest of 1848 that impacted – and in some cases propelled – the careers of composers like Wagner and Liszt. With a changing of the guard, the next volume in this most collectable of sets should be fascinating.

Title: Decades: A Century of Song Volume 4 (1840-1850)
Music by:
Schumann, Dargomyzhsky, Franck et al.
Performers: Florian Boesch bar, Anush Hovhannisyan s, Nick Pritchard t, (tenor), Ida Evelina Ränzlöv ms, Malcolm Martineau p
Label: Vivat VIVAT119

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