Ah! If I but Knew the Way Back … Songs of Children and of Fairy Lands
Kateryna Kasper (soprano)
Hilko Dumno (piano)
rec. 2016, Villa Wahnfried, Bayreuth, Germany
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
TYXART TXA18117 [72:59]
There is children’s music, i.e. music written for children to sing – or to play – and there is children’s music in the sense that it is about children but intended for grown-up listeners. Some composers wrote music specifically for children to listen to, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf possibly the best known, and Bartok composed the 85 piano pieces collected under the title For Children with the outspoken pedagogical ambition “to acquaint the piano-studying children with the simple and non-Romantic beauties of folk music”, implying his own harmonic language. But works like Schumann’s Kinderzenen and Debussy’s Children’s Corner were intended for grown-ups to play, even though Debussy dedicated the suite to his daughter Claude-Emma, when she was three. The dedication reads: “To my dear little Chouchou, with tender apologies from her father for what follows. C.D.”
The songs on this disc are not children’s songs in the first sense or in the sense of Prokofiev and Bartok. Kateryna and Johannes Kasper’s manifesto reads:
“This album is a journey to bygone and dreamt of lands. A journey back to childhood, to the land of elves and nymphs, to the Romantic era.
A journey back? – The modern way of evaluating, optimizing and automatizing everything provokes, I believe, in many people a quiet ‘Romantic’ longing for the secrets hiding behind everyday things, for the irrational, the timeless, for what makes us human. Childhood is such a precious time in which rules of imagination and play reign supreme. These same rules govern the musings of fairy tales and also of music. Romanticism is more than an era: it is also an attitude towards life and, as such, is timeless. Perhaps it is more topical today than ever.”
I wholeheartedly sympathize with this opinion. The ‘technocrazy’ of today needs an antithesis in the shape of beauty, fantasy, imagination, otherworldliness. This delectable programme is a worthy antithesis.
It is divided in three sections. The first, “To Be a Child a Second Time”, comprises scenes from a child’s world: bedtime stories, adventures, games, dreams. In the second part, “From Old Fairy Tales It Beckons”, deals with “the fantastic worlds of grown-up’s fairy tales and myths” mainly focusing on water creatures: nymphs, sea fairies, water-sprites, and in the concluding section, “If I Had Wings!”, focus is on dreams and longings.
Many of the songs are well-known favourites, but they are always a pleasure to return to, and in this particular context they sometimes get a new and wider significance. The opening of the recital is spectacular with two songs from Mussorgsky’s cycle The Nursery, composed between 1868 and 1872. These songs were advanced for its time, harmonically as well as structurally, and his way of fashioning the music from patterns of speech is pointing forward to Boris Godunov and Janacek’s operas. Kateryna Kasper sings them with ‘childish’ tone without sounding in the least condescending. She is lively, expressive, nuanced and her articulation is keen and natural – characteristics that are applicable on everything she does on this disc. Schumann’s Der Sandmann is a charming go-to-sleep-song and it is, like following Gutenachtliedchen (Good Night song), sung with simplicity, softly and intimately. Walter Gieseking, the composer, was one of the great pianists during the first half of the 20th century. He was German but was born in Lyon in France and was regarded as one of the foremost interpreters of Debussy. It is a beautiful melody, gently rocking. If this is something of a rarity – well worth being resurrected – Richard Strauss’s Wiegenlied is so much more famous. It requires a good legato, and Kateryna Kasper delivers accordingly. Hugo Wolf’s Mausfallen-Sprüchlein is a minor master-piece and I can’t resist relating the situation:
The child walks three times around the mousetrap, saying:
Little guests, little house.
Dear Miss or Mister Mouse,
Just boldly present yourself
Tonight in the moonlight!
But shut the door tight behind you,
Do you hear?
And be careful of your tail!
After supper we will sing.
After supper we will jump
And do a little dance;
My old cat will probably dance with us.
Kateryna Kasper sings it with tongue in cheek. A cat – not the same one I suppose – is present also in the third Mussorgsky song “Sailor” the Cat, which is excellently nuanced. Francis Poulenc was often quite mischievous and these two short ditties are really charming. Gieseking comes back with another song from 21 Kinderlieder. Geht leise (Walk quietly) is the title and Ms Kasper sings it so quietly, almost like a whisper. The first section is then concluded with the most recent composition in this collection, Samuel Barber’s setting of Nuvoletta from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. It was written in 1947, the same year as the better-known Knoxville, Summer of 1915, and opens as an elegant waltz, followed by a section with a cappella singing, whereupon the waltz returns. Barber called it “a slightly ironic song”.
The second part of the recital begins with Aus alten Märchen winkt es, (which also is the German title of the whole section) the penultimate song from Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Kateryna Kasper here amply demonstrates that she is a lovely story-teller. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Nimfa is a delicious song, sung with great warmth, and Mendelssohn’s Neue Liebe is weightless in the manner of the scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The pianist, the excellent Hilko Dumno, conjures up the bewitchment of the moonlight in the forest where the elves were riding. Clara Schumann’s setting of Heine’s famous Lorelei, the mermaid or siren or whatever she is, who through her singing send the sailor on the Rhine to their deaths by luring them near the cliffs, is strong and intense, while her husband Robert’s Die Meerfee is light and delicate. Carl Loewe was one year older than Schubert, and even though he didn’t write as many songs as his junior, he anyway penned around 400, and many of them are still performed. In Der Nöck (The Water-Sprite), one of his best songs, he lets the piano paint the waves and the waterfall, while the singer is allotted one of his most memorable melodies. His melodic gift was almost on a par with Schubert’s. The singing here is beautiful and nuanced. Rachmaninov, another great melodist, rounds off this section with the beautiful Zdes’ khorosho (How Fair this Place).
In the last section we encounter some of the most sung and recorded German Lieder from the 19th century. Schubert’s Der Wanderer an den Mond, An den Mond and Auf dem Wasser zu singen; Brahms is represented by Feldeinsamkeit and O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück and Robert Schumann by Sehnsucht and Mein schöner Stern!. This last one may not be as often heard as the others, but you seldom find a song by him that is less than attractive. Clara Schumann’s Der Wanderer, and her songs in general, haven’t really got a foothold in the repertoire, but several of them are very good, and I am very pleased to be able to report that Kateryna Kaspar sings it beautifully. As she does everything on this utterly attractive disc. It is a wholly engrossing recital hat can be played straight through in one sitting without a sense of longwindedness. But it is just as suitable for pick-and-choose listening.
An interesting historical feature is that the disc was recorded in Wagner’s home in Bayreuth, Villa Wahnfried, today a museum, and using Wagner’s own Steinway grand. Imagine the feeling of touching the keys that Wagner himself and Liszt have touched.
Modest MUSORGSKIJ (1839 – 1881)
1. S njanej (Mit der Njanja) from Detskaja (Kinderstube) No. 1 [1:59]
2. Na son grjadushhij (Abendgebet) from Detskaja (Kinderstube) No. 5 [2:23]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
3. Der Sandmann, Op. 79 No. 13 [2:04]
Walter GIESEKING (1895 – 1956)
4. Gutenachtliedchen from 21 Kinderlieder [2:42]
Richard STRAUSS (1864 – 1949)
5. Wiegenlied, Op. 41a No. 1 [4:10]
Hugo WOLF (1860 – 1903)
6. Mausfallen-Sprüchlein from 6 Lieder für eine Frauenstimme No. 6 [1:18]
7. Kol Matros (Kater Matrose) from Detskaja (Kinderstube) No. 6 [2:06]
Francis POULENC (1899 – 1963)
8. Ba, Be, Bi, Bo, Bu from La courte paille FP. 178 No. 5 [0:29]
9. Quelle Aventure! (Was für ein Abenteuer!)FP. 178 No. 2 [1:02]
10. Geht leise from 21 Kinderlieder [2:40]
Samuel BARBER (1910 – 1981)
11. Nuvoletta from Finnegan’s Wake Op. 25 [5:40]
”From Old Fairy Tales It Beckons”
12. Aus alten Märchen winkt es, Op. 48 No. 15 [2:46]
Nikolaj RIMSKIJ-KORSAKOV (1844 – 1908)
13. Nimfa (Die Nymphe) Op. 56 No. 1 [3:15]
Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847)
14. Neue Liebe Op. 19 No. 4 [1:59]
Clara SCHUMANN (1819 – 1896)
15. Lorelei [2:34]
16. Die Meerfee, Op. 125 No. 1 [1:20]
Carl LOEWE (1796 – 1869)
17. Der Nöck Op. 129 No. 2 [7:59]
Sergej RACHMANINOFF (1873 – 1943)
18. Zdes’ khorosho (Hier ist es schön) Op. 21 No. 7 [1:57]
"If I Had Wings!“
Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
19. Der Wanderer an den Mond D 870 – Op. 80 No. 1 [2:19]
20. Der Wanderer [2:03]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
21. Feldeinsamkeit Op. 86 No. 2 [3:12]
22. An den Mond, D 259 [2:31]
23. Auf dem Wasser zu singen D 774 – Op. 72 [3:28]
24. Verborgenheit from Mörike-Lieder No. 12 [2:30]
25. Sehnsucht Op. 51 No. 1 [2:20]
26. O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück Op. 63 No. 8 [3:15]
27. Mein schöner Stern! Op. 101 No. 4 [2:44]