Folksong and legend plays a huge part in this new recital by baritone James Newby and pianist Joseph Middleton, inspired by the idea of the "otherwhere": of the distanced beloved (specifically, the Beethoven An die ferne Geliebte was the catalyst for the programme, a piece Newby has been performing since the beginning of his career). The idea of a search for a space is embodied in the archetypically Romantic idea of the wanderer (two settings by Schubert) while the desertion of a space - and the consequences of that desertion - are examined in Mahler's Revelge. Perhaps Urlicht is the ultimate "other," a longing for a place that exists after our mortal time is concluded.
Interesting then that there is a stark contrast between the music and the very of-our-time black-and-white front cover; it seems to bring the disc's concerns to the liminal states that we experience here in 2021. Certainly there isa palpable sense of longing and sadness to Britten's astonishingly lonely setting of the titular song: it is for voice and piano, but ne'er the twain shall meet, the voice in lonely isolation, the piano merely adding commentary. Britten's setting of There's none to soothe offers some succour:
The placement fo Schubert next is significant: this composer seems to splinter off in different direction. An undeniable influence on Britten, Schubert's presence is even stronger in Mahler; and he forms the link to the central Beethoven. The settings of Wanderer tap into the seeker that was so closer to Mahler's emotional heart. Newby's baritone is finely-hewn to encomass the registral challenges of thesse songs. Here's the first, D 489:
The lesser-known Auf der Donau, D 553 (to a text by Mayrhofer) reminds us of the magic of Schubert, of his magic and how he can tell whole epics in the shortest period of time (here three minutes):
The arrival at Beethoven is clear: Adelaide could be by nobody else. Yet Newby and Middleton bring their trademark care to the music. An early work (1796), despite its opus number (46), the piece radiates longing.
The brief, fresh Maigesang (May Song) leads to the main offering, Beethoven's only song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. Sometimes one can just tell when a piece has been lived with and loved, and this is one of those occasions. The connection between Newby and Middleton seems at its closest here, Middleton's negotiation of the sometimes tricky decorations perfectly judged.
Interesting to hear the lesser-known "Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz'" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; it sits perfectly in the company of "Revelge," with its unforgiving piano writing, and "Urlicht," even including muffled drums in the piano (a wondering soldier - a deserter - faces death).
It is rare to hear "Urlicht" sung by a male, mainly because it is usually heard in the context of the Second Symphony. Let's hear that symphony version first: the great Jessye Norman in a live performance conducted by Seiji Ozawa at the Festival of Saint-Denis:
.. and here's Newby and Middleton in the voice and piano version:
The intimacy of the voice and piano version is remarkable: listen to how tenderly Middleton shapes the piano's chords in response to the singer's opening line, and how they hold the silence before Newby's second entrance. The middle section is more otherworldly here, too, an altogether different experience: not better or worse, just different. Instead of the almighty thunderings of the opening of the finale of the Second Symphony, though, we get a trio of Britten folk song arrangements, the stillness of "At the mid hour of night" a perfect prolongation of the Mahler (and a delicious example of how Newby can float his upper register).
Recorded at Potton Hall, the sound is exceptional throughout - all credit to Producer Robert Suff and Engineer Jeffrey Ginn.
Amazingly, this is Newby's debut solo disc. Winner of the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Award and a 2017 Jerwood Young Artist at Glyndebourne, he shows remarkable maturty here.
This disc is released on the day of this post, Friday, January 8, 2021.