Sanges-Frühling op.98: Nos.1,4,5,10,12,13,14,15,16,17,
21,22,23,26 & 30 and Maria Stuart Lieder op.172: Nos.9,10,11 & 12
Andrea Meláth, mezzo-soprano & Emese Virág, piano
Hungaroton HCD 32256 2004 DDD 61:29
What a welcome issue. To most Raff enthusiasts, his extensive catalogue of 111 published songs is a closed book. Despite many of them having been highly regarded in their composer's lifetime, posterity forgot them. Diligent searching in CD remainder bins might just have yielded a lone song in a Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau collection and a couple of creaky historical recordings, but nothing more. Now this surprise release from Hungaroton gives us the chance to hear a generous selection of 19 songs from the two collections which were most highly regarded by Raff's contemporaries.
What ravishing music it is, too. An hour of Raff at his most lyrical; melody after gorgeous melody caressing with a sensuousness worthy of Richard Strauss. The mood is suitably varied for an introduction to Raff's vocal art, with the Sanges-Frühling songs ranging from the bitterness of Leb' Wohl, a song of farewell, to the utterly carefree Kein Sorg' um den Weg. There are also several extended pieces (the longest lasting almost 10 minutes) which tell a more substantial story and encompass well managed changes of atmosphere.
As might be expected, the four lieder which end the Maria Stuart collection are uniformly dark in colour, as befits the tragic story of Mary Queen of Scots, told through her own poems and those of her lovers.
Generally speaking, the piano writing complements and contrasts rather than competes with the vocal line. When occasion demands, however, Raff gives the instrument the major role - it has more than half of Maria Stuart's Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes to itself and the piano part in the lovely Lorelei from op.98 could almost stand by itself.
Andrea Meláth is an uncommonly fine and persuasive advocate for this music. Her rich, mellow and unforced mezzo conveys real commitment to this unknown repertoire. Her German seems natural and idiomatic. These are involved, intelligent performances in which love and hate, joy and dread come across with evident passion. Her interpretation of the final song, Eichendorff's dark gothic tale Die Hochzeitsnacht Op.98 No.16 , is wonderful - her cry of "du bist mien Bräut'gam nicht" ("you are not my bridegroom") is a truly chilling moment.
This welcome passion does sometimes make one feel, however, that a little more true piano would not have gone amiss. It may be the recording, but the dynamic range seems slightly limited - pianissimo is virtually absent.
At the piano, Emese Virág has a noticeable tendency to avoid the lightness in Raff's writing, almost as if she feels the need to compete with Meláth's often powerful delivery. There is a steady reliability about her contribution which doesn't mar the attractiveness of the whole, but which doesn't really add to it either. The piano tone is an appropriate match for the singer's - mellow and full.
The recording is well balanced, with an pleasurably warm ambience. The insert features the full text of each song, together with English and Hungarian translations. The notes themselves, by Fittler Katalin, do a good enough job when discussing the songs and Raff's approach to writing for the voice. They are riddled with inaccuracies, however, when reviewing Raff's career. Only in passing is it mentioned that most of these songs come from Sanges-Frühling. The Maria Stuart Lieder set isn't mentioned at all. The track listings don't rectify this omission.
The songs are not programmed in the published order. This is hardly a problem for the op.98, ones but the Maria Stuart songs were designed to tell a story and should have been presented consecutively.
Those relatively minor criticisms aside, this is an enormously attractive release which will give pleasure to anyone interested in Raff's music and lovers of the lied generally. Dare we hope for more of the same?
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