Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock”, with clarinet obbligato, may not be the deepest of the master’s late lieder but it is one of the most magical and it spawned a whole series of imitations. Among his imitators was not, I would say, Louis Spohr. While chronologically it was perfectly possible for him to have known the Schubert piece, he had long developed a line of clarinet-writing all his own through his association with the clarinettist Simon Hermstedt (dating back to 1808/9) which had produced four concertos and some smaller pieces. This was the first time he used the clarinet as an obbligato to a set of lieder, but a glance at the printed score is enough to show us that a composer influenced by Schubert would have gone about things very differently. One rather wishes to follow Handel’s example when Maurice Greene brought him a composition for his comments; unceremoniously, Handel hung it out of the window, explaining, with heavy-handed Teutonic humour, “Your music wants air!”. Spohr, like many a lesser composer, seems afraid to leave empty spaces on the page, but his well-padded textures fall agreeably on the ear and we might easily share Mendelssohn’s predilection for the second, which he praised “for its perfectly natural sweetness as a whole, which from beginning to end flows so lightly and gratefully to the feelings”.
A glance at the scores by Schubert’s friend Lachner shows that he had learnt the lesson well; in clarity of conception and in their unfailing melodiousness they are a worthy offering at the greater composer’s shrine. If only he had not set texts which were to be immortalised by later composers! “Seit ich ihn gesehen” is none other than the opening poem of “Frauenliebe und Leben” and Lachner is certainly far short of the rapt magic Schumann could distil from a mere two pages of apparently simple chordal writing. It is questionable whether Mendelssohn ever quite touched this level of sublimity, but one of the pieces in which he approached it was certainly his own version of “On wings of song”; again the comparison with Lachner shows that, the greater the composer, the fewer notes he writes.
Kalliwoda and Spaeth continue agreeably in the Lachner vein; Mariano Obiols is an outsider. A Spaniard who came to Italy to study with Mercadante and wrote “I Laj” during his Italian sojourn, he offers a bel canto aria (to an Italian text) which his master would not have disowned. The remaining three works also stand out for their quality. The Meyerbeer is a broadly conceived, rather original creation with operatic overtones. Friedrich Kücken was exceedingly popular in his own day, although even then Sir George Grove remarked grumpily (in an article signed by himself in the first edition of his famous dictionary) that they were “beloved … almost exclusively however by amateurs and the masses; among musicians they found no favour and are already almost forgotten”. The present miniature plumbs no depths but is so exquisitely turned as to make one wonder if the “amateurs and the masses” had not reason on their side. Lastly, the other “outsider” to the programme, the British composer Richard Walthew, a pupil of Parry and Stanford once appreciated for his chamber music. His hauntingly atmospheric setting should not be passed over by aficionados of British music because it is the only British piece on the disc. Truth to tell, though, a comparison with Mackenzie’s setting of the same words (by Tennyson) tends to reinforce the idea that the better the composer the fewer notes he writes, but until somebody feels like recording the Mackenzie this is not a comparison many people will be able to make.
Colin Bradbury and his like-minded pianist have long been dedicated to searching out odd corners of the romantic clarinet repertoire, and for longer still Bradbury has been known as one of Britain’s leading clarinettists. Hear him launch the glorious opening melody of the Schubert, his rich tone untrammelled by bar-lines. Everywhere in the programme his easy technique and natural musicianship are sympathetic to the music on hand.
Robert Murray is clearly a very young artist, as yet somewhat over-parted by the quasi-operatic demands of the Meyerbeer but very pleasing indeed in Kücken. However, the lion’s share goes to Eirian James. Some time ago I gave the general title “What is a mezzo-soprano?” to a series of a dozen or so reviews, and I was tempted to add this to their number, if only to say that, whatever a mezzo-soprano is, I don’t really think Eirian James is one. I can only surmise – since the highest note here is a B natural – that she prefers this title because she has some doubts about her top C, but that does not of itself make a mezzo-soprano. The Schubert has, it is true, been recorded also by Christa Ludwig – interestingly, Ludwig is a rare case of a mezzo who essayed Beethoven’s Leonore, and Leonore and “Das Hirt auf dem Felsen” were written for the same singer – and its low B flat can be a problem for sopranos. There seems no real reason why high mezzos like von Otter, Ernman or Kozena should not sing the piece. But they would still sound like mezzos (with some doubts about the last named). I can only report that James sounds no less a soprano here than does a “pure” soprano like Edith Wiens; she negotiates the coloratura towards the end, not to speak of the top notes, with the ease we would expect of a soprano and, conversely, sounds no happier than Wiens with her descent to B flat.
Indeed, only one piece in the whole programme actually uses what might be considered the true mezzo range – the Walthew, which crosses continually over the lower break between head and chest registers. A mezzo should be in her element down here, but James sounds more like a soprano coping gamely with a tessitura not quite right for her.
For the rest, the programme sits happily in a midway range which would be perfectly comfortable for either a soprano or a mezzo (though the first Lachner piece is performed a semitone down, unless the Musica Rara edition I have has been transposed up) and there is no denying that James’s warm tones suit the programme well. Only in the Obiols did I feel that her vibrato was a little too wide for the type of music, making the voice rather too blunt an instrument for the bel canto style. I do not wish to belittle this attractive singer, only to find the right label for her. The accompanying curriculum gives the game away, mentioning that she has sung and recorded Despina and Zerlina with John Eliot Gardiner. Zerlina is a borderline case (and a mezzo’s only chance of getting into Don Giovanni at all), but in Così fan Tutte the mezzo role is Dorabella; Despina is usually the preserve of a light soprano.
Still, none of this need worry the general listener, who will find an attractive programme very well presented, and this includes the excellent recording by Andrew Keener and the informative notes, on which I have drawn above. Texts and translations are included.
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