This is the second instalment of Signum Classics’ exploration
of the songs of Beethoven. The first instalment (SIGCD139) was reviewed
last December and featured low voices - the mezzo-soprano, Ann
Murray and the baritone, Roderick Williams. Now we hear a high
voice in the shape of another fine British singer, tenor John
Mark Ainsley. As before, the pianist is the redoubtable Iain
Beethoven’s is not the first name that springs to mind
when one thinks of lieder
. Susan Youens hits the nail
squarely on the head in her scholarly but very readable notes,
when she states of Beethoven: “Song was not his native
tongue.” Earlier in her essay she writes of the composer’s “discomfiture
with vocal writing”, a statement with which I think any
of us who have sung in performances of, say, the ‘Choral’ symphony
or, even more so, the Missa Solemnis
would heartily concur.
In those works Beethoven seems to think of the human voice in
instrumental terms and at times he’s pretty careless of
the demands that he’s placing on lungs or larynx.
But it’s important to remember that both of the aforementioned
works were composed fairly late in Beethoven’s career,
when his deafness had become a major issue. Most of the songs
here recorded are from earlier in his life and, while demanding
of the singer, they are more considerately written. Certainly
John Mark Ainsley seems to take them all in his stride. The chosen
songs suit well his easy, fluent delivery and throughout the
programme his singing gives great pleasure. His voice often reminds
me of Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, with whom I believe he once studied.
The tone is naturally sweet, the timbre essentially light, but
there’s a touch of steel in reserve when needed - indeed,
arguably Ainsley has marginally more of that latter quality than
I don’t believe all the songs in his programme are masterpieces
but one - or, rather, one collection - emphatically belongs in
that category. Beethoven’s songs may not be the foremost
part of his œuvre
but, true to form, the master
innovator contributed something new to this genre, as he did
to others, writing the first true song cycle, An die
. Ainsley ends his programme with this short,
continuous cycle and he does it very well. In some parts of the
cycle, not least the first song, ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz’ ich
spähend’, Beethoven comes very close to Schubert’s
world and Ainsley is excellent in such wistful, lyrical stretches.
But he seems to me to catch the various moods of all the songs
successfully. He’s at his most expressive in the sixth
and final song, ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder’ where
Beethoven brings the cycle back full circle and his ringing tone
at the culminating declaration is admirable. Signum’s presentation
of this recital is excellent but I wish they’d tracked
each of the constituent songs in this cycle separately, especially
as Susan Youens discusses each one individually.
Elsewhere, I much enjoyed Ainsley’s account of Beethoven’s
most celebrated single song, Adelaide
. His voice is just
right for the yearning, ardent tone of this mini-cantata and
he copes very well with the operatic dimensions of the music
that Beethoven provides for the last stanza. Incidentally, there’s
a poignant little point in the notes. A performance of this song
in January 1815 was Beethoven’s last public performance
as a pianist.
Several of the songs were new to me. The title of Abendlied
unterm gestirnten Himmel
is somewhat deceptive. This
offers no gentle eventide musings. Instead it’s a powerful
secular evening hymn. Another deceptive title is La Tiranna
which is not in Italian but in English. Unfortunately this exposes
to English-speaking listeners the embarrassingly fulsome nature
of the text. Quite frankly, I don’t think the music represents
Beethoven at his most inspired either so, apart from the novelty
of hearing an original Beethoven English setting, this one is
for completists only.
It’s interesting to be able to compare the two settings
of An die Hoffnung
, though I think the decision to separate
them in the recital was a sound one. Beethoven first set the
words by the poet Christoph August Tiedge in 1805. Six years
later he met the poet and, subsequently, he asked the poet for
a new copy of the text. When it arrived he discovered that the
lines he had set were prefaced by another five, and this led
him, in due course, to make a completely different setting, incorporating
the additional lines. The two settings are as chalk is to cheese.
The earlier one is a fine and deeply felt strophic setting but
in 1816 Beethoven plumbed much greater depths. The opening of
the 1816 setting - the five additional lines - strikes a philosophical
stance in both the vocal line and the piano part. The second
setting is much longer than its predecessor and much more expansive.
It’s an earnest, striving song and it’s through composed.
Though Beethoven attains a higher degree of eloquence in his
writing on this occasion I’m not sure that I don’t
prefer the simpler, more direct style of the earlier effort to
its careworn successor, even if the later music is much more
advanced. Ainsley and Burnside do both settings very well.
I’ve mentioned Ainsley’s singing several times but
I have failed to comment on the contribution of Iain Burnside.
As you might expect from Beethoven, his piano parts are far from “mere” accompaniments.
The piano is a significant protagonist in most of these songs
and Burnside rises to the challenges they pose extremely well.
One feels his is a true partnership with Ainsley and I found
their collaboration as satisfying as their individual contributions.
Beethoven’s songs may not be amongst his highest ranked
compositions in terms of public esteem but they are far from
negligible compositions and they are well worth hearing, especially
in committed, sensitive performances such as these. Excellent
sound and booklet notes complete the attractions of this welcome