I suspect that I may not be alone in my ignorance of Peter Cornelius’ music beyond The Barber of Bagdad
and the Christmas songs included in this recital. That is clearly my loss, and one I hope to make good soon given that what is heard here is imaginative, interesting and enjoyable, and, fortunately, well performed and well presented.
This is the final volume of his complete lieder, containing his religious songs (see review of Volumes 1-3
). The first set is the most remarkable. The Nine Songs Op. 2 are each derived from a phrase of the Lord’s Prayer. The relevant phrase is sung in Latin to plainsong before the song whose music derives from that phrase. The words are by Cornelius, who regarded himself as much a poet as a composer, and may not in themselves appeal greatly to a modern non-Catholic listener. They are the inspiration nonetheless for music that is varied and uniformly mellifluous. These are sung by Markus Schäfer, a tenor with a very appealing voice — just right for these beautiful if undramatic songs.
The Christmas Songs Op. 8 are occasionally heard as a whole in recitals although the third – The Three Kings – is a staple of Christmas concerts in a choral transcription. I have always found hearing this version a frustrating experience as the addition of sung words to the chorale (Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
) which underlies the declamation of the soloist means that neither is heard clearly. How much better it is as heard here in its original version with the chorale played on the piano and the soloist’s words clearly audible. The admirable booklet notes by Marcus Imbsweiler explain that this setting follows a suggestion by Liszt, a friend of the composer. The disc has the excellent idea of including also the composer’s first setting of the words in which a slow march presumably illustrates the slow progress of the Kings. This makes a illuminating comparison. Both versions are valid but it is immediately obvious why the second has achieved such popularity. The other songs in the cycle are varied, their differences being made more obvious by dividing them appropriately amongst the singers. The Marienlieder are settings, in Italian, of Petrarch, of a more purely lyrical type, and they are allocated between two singers.
All of the singers clearly note the poet/composer’s concern with words as much as with music, and project the text with great clarity. Matthias Veit is the accompanist throughout, reacting instinctively to the singers and playing with warmth and beauty of tone. Even if you do not follow the words there is enough beauty of sound to engage the listener, but to get full enjoyment it is essential to be aware of the texts. Naxos have provided the necessary text and translations on their website and this is a crucial part of the whole.
All in all, this disc was an unexpected major pleasure which will encourage me to seek the three earlier discs in the series. This is undemonstrative but fascinating and delightful music, well performed and well presented.