Popular in his lifetime, Loewe’s music has since failed to remain in the repertoire in the twentieth century except, perhaps, for his setting of “Erlkönig” that has coexisted for years with that of Franz Schubert. Loewe’s name appears at times in lists of practitioners of Lieder, and the music itself merits attention for the qualities it possesses, as well as the facility of the composer in extending the idiom as a means of expression for a variety of texts.
Such variety may be found in the current selection of Lieder, which include settings from a variety of sources. Of the twenty pieces found on this recording, most texts are by poets who have been long since forgotten, but whose lyrics were enough to inspire Loewe to use them in his songs. The texts also include translation from Greek (with the odes “An die Grille,” “An die Leier,” and “Auf sich selbst [two settings]), as well as modern versions of Middle-High German in ‘Der Treuergebene.” Loewe also found inspiration in contemporary verse, as with his setting of Goethe in “Mahomets Gesang” and also Friedrich Rückert in “Jünglings Gebet.” Moreover, the songs in this collection date from various times in Loewe’s career, and seem, at times, connected more to thematic ideas, than the groupings in which the composer published the songs. At the same time, Loewe set such esteemed poets as Goethe alongside figures that are now all but forgotten, like Dilia Helena or Ignaz Julius Lasker, and he made did not distinguish between the sources of his poetry when he set it. Songs with texts by Lord Byron do not sound stylistically different than settings of less well-known figures. In fact, it is this kind of egalitarianism that sets Loewe apart from some of his contemporaries.
Many of Loewe’s settings are ballads, and in conveying the narrative found in multiple stanzas of the poems that inspired him, he varied the strophic presentation by manipulating the accompaniment. While some of the shorter songs are less challenging, it required greater effort for him to compose the extended narrative of “Johann van Nepomuk,” a piece that requires over ten minutes to perform, as if it were a scena of an opera or the kind of extended song more often associated with Gustav Mahler or Richard Strauss later in the century. Such is the case with “Mahomets Gesang,” another more challenging piece for performers to sustain the mood. Despite this kind of consideration, Loewe did not imbue the music with inflections to evoke the Oriental atmosphere suggested by Goethe’s text in this poem, or anything overtly related to the Bohemian milieu of Nepomuk to cause performers to underscore the text with meanings that music can encapsulate. With translations from Classical literature, as in the odes “An Aphrodite” (Sapho) and “An die Grille” (attributed to Anacreon), Loewe does not adopt a forced solemnity with sustained pitches, but allows the joyful spirit of the verses to emerge in the appropriately energetic rhythms. In these pieces and elsewhere, Loewe’s style brings all the music to his early Romantic idiom, thus making his own compositional idiom the vehicle for approaching some quite intriguing texts.
Yet most of the songs are more typical of nineteenth-century Lieder, and the settings are quite competent. Moreover, the tenor Robert Wörle and pianist Cord Garben are evidently familiar with the music, as evidenced in their solid execution. Wörle’s voice is suited to the sometimes high tessitura of several of the songs, and delivers the works with ease. Garben likewise displays a polished flair with the accompaniment, with the solo passages emerging with clarity in performances that are well recorded and nicely balanced.
Even so, the consistent tenor sound of Wörle suggests the resilience of an experienced performer. The songs are suited to his voice, with a pleasant sound at the upper reaches of his instrument. Wörle’s legato is appropriate to the style of the music, as found in the melismas Loewe used in the first of his settings of “Auf sich selbst.” He renders these pieces ardently and with a familiarity that suggests a solid study of both the music and text of Loewe’s Lieder.
Those who might be familiar with Loewe’s music through his setting of “Erlkönig” or have only a passing knowledge from Mahler’s reference to the earlier composer’s Humoresken can gain a better understanding of his legacy in this collection. The fine collection released by CPO includes an excellent set of liner notes, which include the full texts and translations. Those interested in the German Lied should find this recording and others in the series of Loewe's songs enlightening because of the fine music it makes available to a wide audience.
James L. Zychowicz