Herr Oluf, Op.2/2; Wandrers Nachtlied, Heft I/3b; Der Pilgrim vor Sankt Just, Op.99/3; Die Uhr, Op.123/3; Hinkende Jamben Op.62 (Heft 1/5); Der selt’ne Beter, Op.141; Süsses Begräbnis, Op 62/4; Tom der Reimer, Op.135; Odins Meeresritt, Op.118
Henk Neven (baritone) & Hans Eijsackers (piano)
Recorded 22-25 November 2010 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: April 2011
CD No: ONYX 4052
Duration: 61 minutes
Here emerges a young baritone for the Lieder repertoire to take up the torch on the eventual retirement of Thomas Allen, Thomas Hampson, Wolfgang Holzmair, Simon Keenlyside and Thomas Quasthoff, all now in their fifties or beyond. Henk Neven possesses a lyric baritone with both resonance and sap in the tone, the ability to articulate text with clarity but without fussy over-emphasis: a singer in the tradition of Gerhard Hüsch rather than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Of the two song collections represented on this Onyx release, the more valuable must be the selection of songs by Carl Loewe (1796-1869). In his written note Neven links his choice of repertoire to childhood encounters with ancient monuments and the stimulus they gave for his imagination to create narratives peopled by mediaeval figures such as knights, minstrels and damsels in distress. With them went the trappings of mythology as well as potent supernatural figures luring humans to destruction. Loewe’s ballads must have seemed the perfect embodiment of these childhood experiences.
The early “Herr Oluf” establishes the basic methods of depicting contrasting protagonists in the narrative and the action itself. Oluf’s ride is represented by pounding octaves in the pianist’s left hand, the invitations by Erlkönig’s daughter to dance with him by a repeated melodic shape jumping to the leading-note and grace-notes in the accompaniment, and Oluf’s adamant refusal in stern four-part harmony. The warning blow that he receives, the bridal procession and the dénouement are all directly portrayed. The ballads need a singing actor not only to create a picture in the mind of the listener but also to impersonate characters. Neven certainly has the vocal colours to carry off this song’s consistently changing storyboard: Erlkönig’s daughter ethereal and insinuating, Oluf himself dark and firm of voice, his mother tremulous.
The much-more sombre “Der Pilgrim vor Sankt Just” is the story of Emperor Charles V abdicating the throne of the Holy Roman Empire to seek refuge in a monastery. Neven maintains uniform gravity throughout in a setting that looks monotonous on paper, dominated as it is by the ceaselessly repetitive quaver groups in the piano’s bass and the main melodic figure which tolls out on the strong beats almost throughout. Here it is Hans Eijsackers, with his thoughtful observance of Loewe’s markings and accentuation of the modulations, who opens the doors to the Emperor’s emotional state. The endearing “Die Uhr” is quite a different story, literally. Seidl’s poem uses a watch to symbolise a man’s progress through life and relationship with time. It is also a poem of religious devotion, the watch, like life, being a gift which must be returned. Neven sings with appropriate piety and reverence.
“Odins Meeresritt” is the most outwardly dramatic of these ballads. There is much incidental action depicted in the piano part (wind howling, door banging, and a horse stamping and shaking its mane), lots of tense pauses and ultimately a helter-skelter ride through the skies – and a happy ending! Arguably the same applies to “Tom der Reimer”, probably Loewe’s best-known ballad in the absence of “Erlkönig”. This is soft horror, the seven-year commitment not a sentence but a mutually beneficial contract. Even the narrator is bewitched as he relates how Tom first comes across the Elf Queen. In “Der selt’ne Beter” the story-teller is like a true minstrel recounting the story second-hand. “They say he trembled”, he reports. “I don’t know. It may be true.” The characterisation of the old knight praying to God for his sick daughter’s life is the most vivid piece of artistry among these ballads. The bluff old soldier, under no illusions about his lack of verbal eloquence, appeals to his Lord in the only way he knows, as a fellow-warrior and father he must surely understand his wretchedness. But the relentlessness of death cannot be arrested.
It is not surprising that Loewe’s ballads have fallen from fashion but the six recorded here are given committed advocacy by both singer and pianist, the latter impressing with his management of some demanding writing. In these performances what may seem to be lightweight, even childish subject-matter is enhanced by the application of sophisticated musical resources. Three Loewe settings of lyric poems punctuate the ballads. Goethe’s “Wandrers Nachtlied” receives a quite different treatment from that given by Schubert: busy, energised, with a melody which moves widely, it is an urgent, passionate appeal for peace. Rückert is represented by the witty “Hinkende Jamben” and a setting of “Süsses Begräbnis” which has a Schubertian beauty.
There are numerous recordings of Schumann’s Opus 39 “Liederkreis”, and from many decades. Neven’s version is unlikely to make prominent ripples among those already established, but as an example of his promising artistry it is encouraging. Two of the songs provide continuity with the ballads of Loewe. The legendary temptress Lorelei appears in ‘Waldesgespräch’ and ‘Auf einer Burg’ depicts a petrified knight in a ruined castle, still presiding malignly over life below. One could add ‘Zwielicht’, in which night portends fear, Schumann setting the poem in a deliberately archaic musical form. Neven also seems at home with the more lyrical style required in Schumann. . He avoids the ugly noises made by some singers for the Lorelei’s cry of “Es ist schon spat, es ist schon kalt”. The smooth beauty of his voice is heard immediately in the opening ‘In der Fremde’. In ‘Intermezzo’ the re-appearance of the opening lines finds him leaning on and enriching the repeated words with exquisitely rounded tone. Some will find Neven’s ‘Mondnacht’ disappointing: where many singers have been tempted to overdo the head-voice crooning to create nocturnal magic, he follows the single piano marking and shifts the emphasis to the climax of the song, where the poet opens his wings to fly home. I find Eijsackers a little bland in these songs, particularly in the postludes.
Henk Neven has been a BBC New Generation Artist since 2009 and has been given high visibility through broadcasts on Radio 3. His Wigmore Hall debut came through this link. I am confident that he is on the threshold of a fine career.