This release is fascinating for all the right reasons and some of the wrong ones. Hyperion has entrusted thirty-three of Max Reger’s sizeable song catalogue to Sophie Bevan, and while both composer and soprano enjoy some inspired moments the listener has to take the rough with the smooth.
Happy constants are Malcolm Martineau, unsurprisingly a congenial pianist for this repertoire, and the warm, ideally balanced recording. Reger (1873-1916) however, often caught at his most post-Brahmsian and chromatically indulgent, has some curious musical responses to verse. Several tender lullabies are included but his ‘Wiegenlied’ (Opus 43/5) would wake the dead, let alone a baby. With its tripping accompaniment and a brightness that’s not remotely suggested by Richard Dehmel’s cocooning text, it’s a song you’d sing about a sleeping child, not to one. ‘Flieder’, by contrast, is an inappropriately wistful setting of an ardent poem by Otto Julius Bierbaum; and the pastiche period treatment that Reger reserves for ‘In einem Rosengärtelein’, a 16th-century lyric by Daniel Friderici, is intrusive given the timeless sentiment.
The most successful settings are those where honesty meets simplicity. ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ has the sweetness of a hymn-like folksong, while ‘Morgen!’ (the John Henry Mackay text that Richard Strauss also turned to) boasts an exquisitely floated line whose chromatic shifts are a pleasure rather than an irritant. What, though, to make of ‘Die Mutter spricht’? Sofie Seyboth’s three mischievous stanzas are delightful but the music, framed as it is by a quotation from Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’, jumps floridly around as though all it wants to be is an encore.
Sophie Bevan, beloved among today’s sopranos for her limpid tone and touching delivery, struggles with the tessitura in a number of these songs. Indeed, her honeyed low register in ‘Äolsharfe’ (Aeolian Harp – with gorgeous imitative pianism from Martineau) suggests a mezzo in the making. Is her voice on the move? Some unfortunate high leaps in ‘Zwischen zwei Nächten’ and ‘Träume, träume, du mein süßes Leben!’ prompt the question. Her engagement with the songs’ inherent drama comes and goes, too. There’s attention to dynamics but little by way of interpretational interest in ‘Glückes genug’; a song about “abundant happiness” should surely convey the hint of a smile, but there’s none.
At her best, though, Bevan is a charming and committed advocate for these songs. Back on form, she brings plenty of character to ‘Wenn die Linde blüht’, while the achingly familiar Christmas lullaby ‘Mariä Wiegenlied’ provokes shivers. And there’s always Martineau: commanding, illuminating and aristocratic.