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Carl Michael BELLMAN (1740-1795)
Am I born, then I’ll be living
A selection of Fredman’s Epistles, Fredman’s Songs and early poems
Torsten Mossberg (tenor), Stina Hellberg (harp), Jonas Isaksson (guitar & lute), Andreas Nyberg (violin)
rec. 2019, Grisslinge Estate, Ingarö, Stockholm
Sung in Swedish. Texts with English translations enclosed.
STERLING CDA1841-2 [73:46]

Carl Michael Bellman may not be a household name outside the Nordic countries, in particular his native Sweden. He is still, more than two centuries after his demise, regarded as the Swedish national poet. In Sweden many inhabitants know a lot of his texts by heart and many more can at least hum many of the melodies which, it must be mentioned at once, seldom were his own. He borrowed – long before there were copyright laws – songs from popular operas, often French, and instrumental pieces by Roman and others. But often he modified them to suit his texts so he was a kind of composer as well. The reason why he never became wider known is of course linguistic. Had he written in English he might well have been compared to, say, Robert Burns who was roughly contemporaneous. Luckily there are today excellent congenial translations by Paul Britten Austin, and on the present disc those translations are printed parallel with the Swedish originals – except for the eight early poems that are not included in Bellman’s two central collections Fredman’s Epistles and Fredman’s Songs. For those early poems Executive Producer Bo Hyttner has provided translations. It is worth mentioning also that just a couple of weeks before I wrote this review, Musicweb published a review by Gary Higginson of a 35+ -year-old Nimbus disc with the admirable Martin Best, singing a good dozen Bellman songs in Paul Britten Austin’s translations (review). Incidentally I reviewed the same disc ten years earlier and found that it was well worth a listen, why not as a complement to Torsten Mossberg’s disc, which of course is sung in the original Swedish.

Sterling has issued quite a number of discs before with Swedish songs of various provenance sung by Mossberg, and it is a pleasure to report that this latest offering is well up to the level one has come to expect from him. His readings are always well considered, sung unaffectedly and straight forward with no undue interpretative quirkiness. This is honest music making with great care for the text and he is responsive to the many textual finesses. He is accompanied by Stina Hellberg Agback on harp and Jonas Isaksson on guitar as on a couple of previous discs but this time Andreas Nyberg’s violin is a valuable addition which contributes to an even more varied sound world with colourful solos as required from Bellman’s instructions.

Mossberg has discriminatingly choses several Epistles and Songs that are not among the best known, which is valuable. Several illustrate everyday life in Stockholm, often with death as a central ingredient. There is a share of drinking songs and some of the Epistles are social reports, the most famous Epistle No. 23, where the drunk Fredman is lying in the street outside the tavern, blaming his mother who went to bed with his father and thus caused Fredman’s miserable life. He is certainly in a terrible state and Bellman describes him in detail: his clothes are torn, his body itches, his hands are frozen, his tongue can’t sing – he curses his mother! But then comes the peripeteia – unfortunately those two stanzas are cut here – when the tavern opens. Fredman staggers in, gets his schnapps. And now life returns, ‘Health’s in a bottle, cheers! Now am I jolly, fit for a folly; Gone are all my fears. Thanks, father, mother too, thanks to both of you!’ The scene is realistic, also according to other sources. Alcohol was consolation to many living in misery but also the cause of death to many. Bad hygiene and lack of clean water also contributed to death tolls that were among the highest in Europe. So no wonder that death is omnipresent in Bellman’s poetry. In Epistle No. 30 he paints a frightening picture of Father Movitz during his last sickness, consumption: ‘Yellowish hue, and small cheeks body burning / Shrunken thy chest, and shoulders as of lath. / Let’s see thy hand! Each vein the blood returning, / Swollen and damp, as from a heated bath. / Sweaty thy palm is, its art’ries all stiffen’d …’ But there are jollier things as well and the selections here convey a fair picture of the manifoldness of his total oeuvre. One of the gems is Fredman’s Song No. 32, Step forth, thou god of night, which is a melodically as well as textually immensely beautiful song at nightfall. Here the poet savours the scents and sounds of nature and even invites Pan and Neptun to share the pastoral idyll, so far from the grim everyday life. Of special interest are a handful of early poems that have not been recorded before. He wrote almost 300 poems during his youth and all of these may not be masterpieces, but those selected here are valuable additions to our knowledge of Carl Michael Bellman.

The disc comes in a box with two booklets. One with background information on Bellman’s Stockholm and biographical notes on Bellman, and also more detailed information on his total oeuvre. There is also a word list to some of the words and expressions occurring in Bellman’s texts. The booklet is completed with artist biographies. The second booklet has all the sung texts with line by line translations. This is indeed a model for presentation, and even Nordic collectors with solid knowledge about Bellman will find valuable new information.

There is no dearth of Bellman recordings – and they differ a lot, from high drama and burlesque to Lieder like seriousness. Torsten Mossberg has chosen a golden middle course that should appeal to many tastes.

Göran Forsling

1. Fredman’s Song No. 16: Am I born, then I’ll be living [1:51]
2. Fredman’s Epistle No. 2: So screw up the fiddle [2:37]
3. Poem No. 17: Oh, oh! I am now seventy years old [5:25]
4. Fredman’s Epistle No. 41: Mollberg sat up in bed [5:14]
5. Poem No. 27: The suitor’s song of the four estates [2:31]
6. Fredman’s Epistle No. 27: Agèd am I, my watch is wound up [3:01]
7. Fredman’s Song No. 19: Ah, death he is a frightful bear [2:06]
8. Fredman’s Song No. 6: Hear how the bells with anxious groan [3:12]
9. Poem No. 7: Behold his morning [3:58]
10. Fredman’s Epistle No. 30: Drain off thy glass! See death upon thee waiting [5:24]
11. Fredman’s Song No. 11: Portugal, Spain [2:27]
12. Fredman’s Epistle No. 36: Our Ulla lay one morning and slept [6:45]
13. Poem No. 5: Double chin, formidable belly big [2:45]
14. Poem No. 27b: Oh so cold are your hands [1:37]
15. Fredman’s Epistle No. 23: Ah, tell me, mother, who then was it sent thee [6:00]
16. Poem No. 41: About the flee [2:35]
17. Fredman’s Song No. 31: Step forth, thou god of night [6:22]
18. Fredman’s Epistle No. 43: Warm more ale and bread [2:57]
19. Fredman’s Song No. 56: When I have two pence to tipple [2:01]
20. Fredman’s Song No. 33: The magistrate in Tälje is trying [3:22]
21. Fredman’s Song No. 17: In the month of January, cheers! [1:25]

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