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Recordings

Dvořák und seine Zeit
06 Jan 2006

Dvořák und seine Zeit

Dvořák und seine Zeit – Dvořák and his Time – immediately conveys a singular perspective on some of the vocal music of Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) in the context of his generation. Recorded on 17 August 2004, the music on this two-CD set is from the second of two programs that were given at the 2004 Salzburg Festspiel under the rubric of “Dvořák und seine Zeit.”

Dvořák und seine Zeit

Barbara Bonney, soprano; Michelle Breedt, mezzo; Thomas Hampson, baritone; George Zeppenfeld, bass; Wolfram Rieger, piano.

Orfeo d'Or C656 0521 [2CDs]

 

The performers on this recording include such distinguished practitioners of the Lied as Thomas Hampson and Barbara Bonney, as well as their younger colleagues Michelle Breedt and George Zeppenfeld, all of whom are accompanied by the pianist Wolfram Rieger. In fact, the selections are grouped into three parts, the first repeating the title “Dvořák und seine Zeit,” which prefixes much of the composer’s songs. The second, “Dvořák in der Neuen Welt” [“Dvořák in the New World”], includes many of the American pieces found on recording, with the third “Die Welt des Glaubens” [“The World of Belief”] being a rubric for songs with Biblical texts or religious associations. These groupings help to make sense of the order of the pieces, which gives the sense of a Liederabend in three sections.

Most importantly, this recording provides a good selection of Dvořák’s songs, including music from Vier Lieder, op. 2, Abendlieder [“Evening songs”]; op. 3, Mährische Duette [“Moravian duets”] op. 32; Cigánské melodie [“Gypsy tunes”], op. 55; the op. 82 Lieder; the set of Love Songs, op. 83; and Biblické písnĕ [“Biblical songs”], op. 99. Of the over ninety songs that Dvořák composed, the ones on this CD date from various times in his career, with most of them from decade between 1876 and 1886, the time when the composer finished his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. During the same time Brahms composed his four symphonies; Bruckner finished his Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies; Mahler wrote his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; and the Richard Strauss produced a number of songs, especially his op. 10 Lieder, the set that contains such well-known songs as “Zueignung” and “Allerseelen.” It was a rich time for new music, particularly the art song, not only in German-speaking countries, but also in other parts of Europe and also America.

When it comes to defining Dvořák’s contemporaries who wrote Lieder, the repertoire was selected from a wide geographic area and includes the European composers Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Johannes Brahms (1833-97), and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), as well as the Americans Arthur Farwell (1877-1952), Charles Wakefield Cadman 1881-1946), Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), and Charles Ives (1874-1908). While it is laudable to find so many American composers on such a program, the balance seems tilted a bit toward them because of Dvořák’s extended stay in the United States. This fact is pointed out in the article “Ein Lied-Erlebnis der besonderen Art” [“A Special Kind of Song Experience”] by Gottfried Kraus, which is found in the accompanying booklet.

Kraus’s notes include more information about the recital, which involved some music that was not included in this set. Hampson performed Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen alongside Dvořák’s Zigeunermelodien, as well as a selection of Lieder by Liszt and Strauss. Given that the first program included music which is, perhaps, more familiar, this selection of works from the second program makes available works that are, perhaps, less accessible on recordings. Thus, the works by American composers presented here offer a glimpse of late-nineteenth century composition in the United States. The songs sometimes involve topics of local interest, like the romanticized view of Native Americans found in the Three Indian Songs by Farwell and the Two Indian Songs by Cadman. The tone of those pieces reflects the time in which they were composed and a limited knowledge of the actual culture of the indigenous people. Likewise, the spirituals found on this recording, “Deep River,” “By an’ By” and “Steal Away,” all in arrangements by Henry Thacker Burleigh, represent the influence of African-American culture on the United States. At the same time, the single song by MacDowell, “The Sea,” is of interest for its text by the American author William Dean Howells, whose posthumous reputation does not leave room for verse, especially poetry that would be set to music. The one song by Charles Ives that is on the recording is “Songs My Mother Taught,” which is of interest for its American translation of a tune that Dvořák himself set.

Of the European composers that are part of this recital, the selection of Brahms’ late work, the Vier ernste Gesänge, op. 121 uses texts from the Bible, like Dvořák’s ten settings entitled Aus Biblické písnĕ, op. 99. While Brahms set verses from the Old and New Testaments, Dvořák used the Psalms exclusively for his. Likewise, the choice of two other love songs from Brahms set of op. 43 Lieder, “Die Mainacht” [no. 2] and “Von ewiger Liebe” [no. 1] offer an excellent parallel to the secular songs by Dvořák. With Grieg, the recital demonstrates the influence of the art song on yet another national tradition, Norway, with two selections from his op. 82 set. Mahler is represented by a single piece, the setting of “Urlicht” a text from the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn that is properly part of his Second Symphony.

All in all, this is an ambitious program in its effort to represent Dvořák and his time. The informed choices made for this program demonstrate the ways in which familiar Lieder can be presented with less-performed literature to good effect. At the same time, the performances by Hampson and Bonney are quite effective, and the applause included after “Von ewiger Liebe” is quite deserved for Bonney’s sensitive interpretation of the song, as well as those that precede it. Hampson himself is a finer interpreter of Dvořák’s Lieder, especially in the selections from the set of Cigánské melodie, op. 55. The clarity of diction in Czech is notable, as is his careful intonation of the modal passages. He captures well the spirit of the texts, which are provided in the booklet.

The Möhrische Duette, op. 32, are reminiscent of some of Schumann’s Lieder for two voices, albeit with a nod to another nationality. Bonney and Breedt work well together, with commendable precision and intonation. Their voices blend well, even in the sometimes open sound of the hall used for this live recital. For those seeking some recital material, these settings deserve to be heard more often. Breedt’s somewhat deeper mezzo voice plays off Bonney’s clear soprano in music that suits both their voices. Likewise, Breedt’s solo efforts in the set of Vier Lieder, op. 2, offer an opportunity for her to use her lower voice effectively – it is a solid mezzo, not the contralto that is sometimes heard in Mahler’s “Urlicht” (as performed here by Breedt) or Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge (here sung by Georg Zeppenfeld). With Zeppenfeld, his clear bass voice is particularly good in conveying the texts of Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge. Yet the three spirituals chosen for this recording sound less idiomatic and seem more like art songs, and that may be the result of the arrangements chosen, which are somewhat stylized. This is more a criticism of the music selected, but such distinctions are important in the context attempted on this recording.

At the same time, the idiom of the live performance plays into the ambiance of the recording, and the hall does not always serve the singers sufficiently. At times the sound is thin, with the warm resonance that occurs elsewhere on the recording absent. Elsewhere, though, it seems as though the placement of the singers and piano may have changed to give a slightly different character to the sound. Again, this is to be expected with a live recording and, in some respects, conveys something of the atmosphere at the Salzburg Festival.

As a concept, the idea of shaping a recital around a composer and his milieu is laudable. This particular program certainly builds a case for exploring further the Lieder of Dvořák. While hardly unknown – Bernarda Fink and Roger Vignoles recently recorded a selection of the composer’s songs – they deserve to be known better. The quality of the music lends itself well to performances by such talented musicians as those who participated in the remarkable recital at Salzburg, and it is fortunate to have that event documented on this CD. For those who are unfamiliar with Dvořák’s songs, the Orfeo recording provides a fine sampling.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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