Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Spell-binding songs


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In further proof that the classical recording industry marches to a different drummer, as the world economy goes into freefall, out come three new issues of the songs of Carl Loewe. Celebrated in his day (the German mid-19th century) as a wandering minstrel who sang for the likes of Goethe and Prince Albert, Loewe was a respected composer in a broad range of standard genres whose 15 minutes of fame were, nevertheless, 150 years ago.

Once upon a time, readers of a certain age might have heard a Loewe song or two on a recital program or LP by a singer such as Hans Hotter or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. But Loewe has long been a largely unacquired connoisseur's taste and, until now, a captive of CD reissue boxes. Then along come three baritones with Loewe CDs that figure among the most exciting vocal recordings of the year so far, and surely represent the composer's last stand in a young century that just might have room for another spinner of 3D-free gripping legends.

Any other time, Dutch baritone Henk Nevens' Auf einer Burg: Songs by Loewe and Schumann (Onyx), a handsomely sung set of nine Loewe songs (with Schumann's Eichendorff Liederkreis), would have found or even created a niche market. It's just his bad luck that it was released at the same time as Loewe Songs & Ballads with Florian Boesch and pianist Roger Vignoles (Hyperion) and Gerald Finley's stunning new compilation, The Ballad Singer (Hyperion), with Julius Drake.

The Austrian Boesch is the only one to brave an all-Loewe disc, which proves that the music itself is of a class that can command and hold attention throughout a whole CD. The fecundity and richness of imagination on display in the 20 items on the disc is simply startling, and the sage programming and arresting musicianship brought to bear on it make you wonder where this music has been all your life. Or just wonder.

The best stuff, the ballads – strophic songs that tell swift, hell-bent-for-leather, horse-heavy stories (grim, morbid nail-biters for the most part) – also demand the most from the interpreters, who may not have to contend with the tiny attention spans and hectoring impatience of today's fantasy audience, but do have to rise to Loewe's advanced storytelling acumen. Boesch comes out of the gate with four in a row, the third, "Erlkoenig" ("The Elf King"), among the best and best-known of Schubert's songs, and virtually unknown today in Loewe's version. Boesch's gripping performance says why Wagner and perhaps Goethe, author of the poem the song sets, preferred Loewe's to Schubert's.

But to catch this narrative wizardry at its most dizzying, go directly to the fourth, "Herr Oluf," at six-plus minutes the longest selection on the disc. The 21 verses of the poem – which tells a story of the Elf King's daughter, who, siren-like, lures Sir Oluf to his death the night before he is to be married to another – fall into separate musical episodes demarcated by pregnant pauses that somehow only increase the music's pace and overall tension. Boesch's virtual ventriloquism, finding a distinct voice for each of the characters, and Vignoles' kaleidoscopic playing, riding the piano like Oluf his mount, dispatch a truly spell-binding entertainment.

But, it turns out, two can play at this game. Finley sings only two Loewe items on The Ballad Singer, "Edward" and "Die Wandelne Glocke," but his equally magical singing only points out how rich and open to interpretation the music is and, paradoxically, how much the singer has to bring to it to bring it alive.

Finley, sparring with no one but going head to head with every Lieder singer of consequence ever, delivers a Schubert "Erlkoenig" as disturbing (as much as anything because of its refusal to exaggerate) as any I know. And on the Lieder front, he's even more compelling with Mahler's "Wo die schoenen Trompeten blasen" and Hugo Wolf's "Der Feuerreitter," the Mahler for its sheer elevation, and the Wolf for the very qualities annotator Richard Wigmore attributes to Wolf in this particularly magisterial song about the fire-rider, its "glittering, demonic energy."

But although all modern-day songsters are at pains to prove what good entertainers they are in the bargain, no one else does it more naturally, not to say effortlessly, and convincingly than Finley. Every time I listen to this disc, there's another song I think is the best of all, but the most frequent blue-ribbon winner is "The Desert," a c. 1860 song by Louis Emanuel that you instantly recognize but just can't place, or resist. Its vertiginous chromatic scales, depicting the vulture flying over the song's marooned hero, show Drake at his jaw-dropping best, too. Only Cole Porter's saucy "The Tale of the Oyster," written for a motion-picture heroine, could follow it, and Finley puts it over deftly.

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