Beethoven: Irish, Welsh & Scottish Songs

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Naïve Astrée
WORKS: Irish, Welsh & Scottish Songs
PERFORMER: Sophie Daneman (soprano), Paul Agnew (tenor), Peter Harvey (baritone), Alix Verzier (cello), Alessandro Moccia (violin), Jérôme Hantaï (fortepiano)
CATALOGUE NO: E 8850
Shavings from the master’s workshop, no doubt. In fact the composer protested to the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson in 1809 that setting folksongs gave a true artist no real pleasure. Yet Beethoven being Beethoven, he took immense pains with the folksong arrangements he made for Thomson. The old Celtic tunes are often haunting in themselves; and Beethoven respects their innate beauty while imprinting his own personality on them. His piano trio accompaniments are endlessly resourceful, full of subtleties of harmony and texture; sometimes the symphonist in Beethoven cannot resist touches of motivic development; and time and again he creates preludes and epilogues that marvellously encapsulate and intensify the songs’ essence.

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These inspired arrangements are still too little-known. And this new disc of 24 of them, mainly Irish, Welsh and Scottish, but also including a jollied-up setting of ‘God Save the King’, does them proud. All three singers have fresh, personable voices and strike an ideal balance between artlessness and sophistication. Diction is always crystal-clear, and mercifully there are no attempts at cod local accents. Tenor Paul Agnew sings with relish in the more boisterous songs, baritone Peter Harvey is particularly eloquent in two poignant elegies, ‘On the Massacre of Glencoe’ and ‘The Parting Kiss’, while Sophie Daneman brings an exquisite tenderness to ‘To the Aeolian Harp’ and combines beautifully with Agnew in perhaps the most magical arrangement of all, ‘The Dream’. The strings and fortepiano are ideally balanced with the voices and each other, and make the most of their opportunities for pointed and picturesque commentary. An hour of unalloyed gentle pleasures.