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Recordings

Ann Murray and Malcolm Martineau: Schumann, Mahler, Britten
02 Aug 2006

Ann Murray and Malcolm Martineau: Schumann, Mahler, Britten

Recorded in early May 2005 at Crear, an artists’ community in Argyll, Scotland, this CD contains selections of Lieder and songs that fit well the supple voice of the mezzo-soprano Ann Murray, who is accompanied facilely by the Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau.

Ann Murray and Malcolm Martineau: Schumann, Mahler, Britten.

Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano, and Malcolm Martineau piano.

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The program is varied, which starts with Mahler set of five Rückert-Lieder, songs that date from the first decade of the twentieth century. Murray’s thoughtful performance of these songs is a good reminder of how fresh the pieces can be in the hands of a musician like her, who is sensitive to both the melodic line and the text. Nowhere does she overstate what is implicit in the text, especially in “Liebst du um Schönheit,” a subtle song that works well with Murray’s understated approach to the piece that requires the control of an experienced Lieder singer.

At times the music reaches beyond the intimacy of the fine acoustic used for this recording, as with “Um Mitternacht,” with its hymn-like echoes that call to mind the orchestration Mahler made. If Murray is sometimes overtly extraverted in interpreting this piece, her subtlety is all the more apparent in “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” a song that the composer himself thought to be one of his finest efforts. Martineau certainly creates a fine ensemble with Murray in delivering this song, and the nuances he contributes anticipate the way he approached some of the other music on the CD in what is essentially a recital at Crear.

It is unusual to find a work from an earlier period following such a modern one as Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, and the placement of Robert Schumann’s cycle Frauenliebe und Leben at the center of this recording is a wise choice. Albert von Chamiso’s texts point out some moments in a woman’s existence, which receive a fine treatment from Murray and Martineau. While the room sometimes swallows a few of Murray’s lines, it also offers a good ambiance to the piano. The performers give the pieces a proper ensemble, as occurs in the second song of the cycle, “Er, der Herrlichste von allen.” The understatement in “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” fits the tone of the piece well and shows the supportive role Martineau can offer when playing this repertoire. All in all, this is a solid performance of this familiar cycle that benefits from the even and appealing treatment of the vocal line that Ann Murray brings to the recording.

Yet the pieces by Britten on this CD are treasures. Less familiar than either the pieces by Mahler or Schumann, the Charm of Lullabies is a work that deserves to be part of more programs, placed, perhaps, after music that is more traditional. Murray brings personal and effective expression to the English poetry Britten set, with the charming Scottish tones of “The Highland Balou,” a setting of Burns that cannot be missed for its incessant Scotch-snap rhythm in the accompaniment. In the hands of a composer like Britten, English is a highly lyric language, and that aspect of the pieces is not lost on Murray. The patter-song influence on “A charm,” a setting of poetry by Thomas Randolph, is effective in rendering a different kind of lullaby. “Sleep! Or I will make Erinnys whip thee with a snake” and the lines that follow are hardly the kind of verse an earnest parent would offer before sleep. Yet the final piece, “The Nurse’s Song,” with version by the sixteenth-century poet John Philip contains some wonderfully seductive harmonies.

Restful as that piece may be, the first of Britten’s Cabaret Songs, “Calypso” can rouse anyone’s attention with its strident whistle. The archness of the texts of this song, as well as the tone of the others in the set, sounds as though the music was conceived for Murray, who delivers them with panache. Martineau accompanies her with finesse, as these somewhat popular-sounding songs round out this engaging program. Britten’s effort in these songs, as well as the others he composed, shows the development of the artsong in the twentieth century. Not precisely Lieder in the strictest sense, these pieces are enjoyable because of the way in which the text and the music balance each other smartly. As with the Charm of Lullabies, the composer chose his texts carefully, an aspect of his song output that makes the music attractive to performers and their audience.

James L. Zychowicz

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