Review: Katarina Karneus/ Joseph Middleton

This was French song, mélodie or chanson, with vocal beef!

The fashionable tendency of treating the genre with kid gloves as something fragile and delicate often leaves it sounding characterless and can regularly be allied to affectation and under-singing.

All of which was the last thing Katarina Karnéus could be accused of at her Sheffield Chamber Music Festival lunchtime concert in the Crucible Studio.

So, she could have been charged with sounding a little too operatic at times, not least when echoes of Herodias in Richard Strauss’s Salome surfaced, a role the Swedish mezzo-soprano was coming to end of in an eight-performance run with Opera North.

French song aficionados or purists may well throw fits, but it wasn’t so distressing. Hearing, for instance, Après un rève and Automne among four Fauré items sung with purpose and feeling was a refreshing change to the regular insipid renderings of them.

Four songs by Duparc, including Chanson Triste and the well-known L’Invitation au Voyage, gained enormously from forthright but subtle, meaningful delivery, the only thing missing being word clarity. A stumbling block, generally, was the need for sharper diction.

With it, the superbly sung Trois Chansons de Bilitis by Debussy would have been even more memorable with Joseph Middleton’s fabulous execution of the piano part which captured the composer’s myriad of tonal colours.

Satie’s La diva de L’Empire ensured that everyone had a smile on their face at the end.


Snapshots of Life

Two supreme song-smiths appear at the Crucible Studio over the course of this year’s May Festival, or Sheffield Chamber Music Festival, promoted by Music in the Round: baritone Roderick Williams and mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus.

The latter has a must-hear French song recital at lunchtime on the 15th of May while ‘Roddy’, as Music in the Round’s singer-in-residence is affectionately known, is heard twice on the opening day this Friday (11th of May) performing Mahler and Schubert song cycles.

Schwanengesang – or Swan Song, is the song cycle Schubert never knew he had written!

Whether he intended it to be is extremely unlikely, although there have been arguments that he did.

The songs, 14 of them, are settings of verse by three poets, for a start. Song cycles invariably consist of the work of one poet and, more often than not, have a linked narrative thread – Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise are examples – or a specific theme.

Schwanengesang is a collection, or compilation of two sets of songs, seven to texts by Ludwig Rellstab and six by Heinrich Heine, plus one by Johann Seidl to round things off.

Described as ‘snapshots of life’, Schubert committed the Rellstab and Heine songs to consecutive, untitled manuscript pages, leading to the implied suggestion of a cycle, three months before his death.

How, or if, he intended to combine the songs in cycle form is anyone’s guess. Worth noting, though, is that Schubert offered the six Heine songs, which include Der Atlas and Der Doppelgänger, to a Leipzig publisher a month before he departed this mortal coil.

The best-known Rellstab setting is the famous Ständchen – Serenade!

It became a song ‘cycle’ after Schubert’s death when the composer’s publisher Tobias Haslinger got hold of the manuscript, christened it Schwanengesang and published it in early 1829 having added Schubert’s setting of Seidl’s Die Taubenpost – The Pigeon Post, believed to be the last Lied, or song, the composer wrote.

Declaring the work a song cycle doubtless owed more than a little to the earlier financial successes of Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise!

The brochure blurb for the performance of Schwanengesang refers to ‘a sequence of 13 songs’ suggesting, in all likelihood, that Die Taubenpost will not be included. Perhaps performed as an encore, given its significance in Schubert’s vast Lieder output?

From very late Schubert to early Mahler some 60 minutes before Roddy launches into the Schubert with regular pianist Iain Burnside and Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, or Songs of a Wayfarer, as it is inaccurately known in English.

One of Mahler’s most frequently heard vocal works; its composition history is complex with no small amount of hearsay and supposition. That it was born following the composer’s unhappy love affair with a soprano is probably the only cast iron fact.

Mahler is believed to have started composing the four songs to his own texts in late 1884 and completed them sometime in 1885. He later revised the score considerably and at some point in the early 1890s is said to have orchestrated the piano part.

A performance of the orchestral version in March 1896 was possibly the work’s premiere, although an earlier voice-and-piano performance, it seems, can’t be ruled out.

Mahler’s lyrics were heavily influenced by the prose style in Des Knaben Wunderhorn – The Boy’s Magic Horn, a collection of German folk poetry and songs to which there are regular references in much of the composer’s music.

Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, in a chamber ensemble arrangement by Erwin Stein, forms part of an Ensemble 360 concert that also takes in Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Mahler’s Piano Quartet movement, the nearest he got to writing chamber music.

A shorter-again song cycle crops up in the programme presented by Swedish mezzo Katarina Karnéus, winner of the 1995 Cardiff Singer of the World competition who has gone on to forge an international career of enormous prestige.

Every mezzo-soprano worth her salt sings Debussy’s sensual Trois Chansons de Bilitis – Three Songs of Bilitis, settings of texts from his friend Pierre Louÿs’ collection of 140-odd erotic prose poems, The Songs of Bilitis – an alleged contemporary of Sappho in Ancient Greece.

Elsewhere are three Fauré gems: Après un rêve, the regularly heard first song of a set of three, Op 7; Automne, the third of a set of three, Op 18; and the slightly lesser known Fleur jetée, the lively second of a set of four songs, Op 39.

There are also three Duparc jewels, two to texts by Baudelaire: L’Invitation au Voyage, easily the composer’s most regularly heard song, and his last song in 1884, La Vie Antérieure, before mental illness ended his composing career. Chanson Triste makes up the three.

Unspecified songs by Messiaen and Satie are scheduled among the Gallic delights for which Joseph Middleton is the pianist. The latter’s La Diva de l’Empire, perhaps. That would add further icing to the cake!