Emma Bell - Songs by Richard Strauss, Bruno Walter and Joseph Marx -

I think we must start with an expression of delight at the unhackneyed choice of songs for this recital. Here is a young singer making her name with a major album of 25 songs of which nine are by Bruno Walter and four by Joseph Marx. Certainly there are twelve by Richard Strauss but at least we are seeing a more open approach. Rather this than another tired anthology of the usual ‘greats’.

Bruno Walter (originally Bruno Walter Schlesinger) is known, to the exclusion of everything else, as a conductor and also as pupil and friend of Gustav Mahler. True to pattern, Grove V does not even mention his compositional activities. In fact he wrote two symphonies, Das Siegesfest for soli, chorus and orchestra, a string quartet, a piano quintet, a piano trio, a violin sonata and various songs. You can hear his violin sonata played by Philippe Graffin and Pascal Devoyon on Hyperion CDA67220 review - It is coupled with the Goldmark suite for violin and piano.

Walter's songs are presented in three groups on this Linn disc. Tragödie I, II and III are Heine settings using terse and melancholic poems about love, elopement, loneliness and death. For me they were quite a discovery. No wonder Bell chose them to start the collection. The first is ironically cheerful and not that far distant from Warlock's My Own Country. Tragödie II is a beautiful song using a chiming downward-stepping high piano figuration - cascading, glistening and starry. It recalls the tinselly silver of Strauss's Presentation of the Rose from Rosenkavalier. The final Tragödie pictures two artless young lovers beneath the Linden weeping and not knowing why. These are songs of the most fragile beauty and are spun by singer and pianist with utmost sensitivity. Remarkable too is Walter's Die Lerche (Lark) setting anonymous words but in a more harmonically adventurous style than he adopted for the Heine trilogy. For yet more variety the very attractive Walter setting of Elfe romps along to a calypso rhythm. The last group of three Walter songs are settings of Julius Wolff (1834-1910). These are more lusty than the others with a definite Tannhauser exuberance and triumphalism in Liebeslust (tr. 25).

The music of Joseph Marx is one of my hobby-horses. His works are now beginning to receive part of their due. His epic Herbstsymphonie for example is to be performed in Graz in Austria on 24/25 October 2005. His songs are lushly romantic and lavishly florid including writing that would sit happily in an opera: for example in this case try Traumgekrönt. The pianist is also fully tested. The notes remind us that most of Marx's songs were written during the period 1908-1912.

The Strauss songs will be familiar to a wider audience. Highlights include Bell's delicately, purely and enchantingly sustained altissimo on the words 'in den frieden' in Freundliche Vision. There's also the playful Mutterandelei and Hat gesagt-bleibt nicht dabei referencing Strauss's best flighty operatic vintage - a nice contrast with the moody rose-romance of the other songs. Epheu (Ivy) the third song in the complete Madchenblumen op. 22 (1-4), all included here, is an acqueously rippling setting. That watery moonlit delicacy carries over into the magical Wasserose. Schlechtes wetter is carefree and must have pleased Viennese audiences with its sentimental heurige spirit.

The helpful notes are by Sandy Matheson. The sung texts are printed in full with idiomatic English translations. Many of these are by Emily Ezust who has done so much through her website to increase the accessibility of the world's vast store of lieder - lieder texts and translations.

A couple of presentational criticisms. The booklet would have been even more helpful had the poems and translations been linked to the track numbers. There was also a serious problem with my review copy as pages 11-14 were missing. You should check.

If you would like to sample the excellence of these recordngs then try Strauss's Traum durch die Dåmmerung and especially that fastidiously and softly floated high note on the word 'Licht'. My one reservation came when in Das Rosenband there is every appearance of the engineer shying the recording level in the face of an extremely dramatic fortissimo.

The pity is that more songs were not included - the playing time is less than an hour. I would have welcomed more Marx and Walter. So far as Walter is concerned we have opp. 11 nos 4-6 and 12 nos 3-4 and 6. Whatever happened to the missing ones. Are they that poor?

I should add that listened to this disc on a standard CD player so cannot comment on its SACD performance.

This is an intensely attractive and thoughtfully constructed recital.
31 January 2005