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Ruby Hughes (soprano); BBC NOW/Jac van Steen (BIS)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

Berg: Altenberg Lieder; Mahler: Rückert-Lieder; Rhian Samuel: Clytemnestra
Ruby Hughes (soprano); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Jac van Steen
BIS BIS-2408 (hybrid CD/SACD)   54:46 mins


Clytemnestra gives this release its collective title, although Rhian Samuel’s solo cantata is placed last in the sequence. Musically, this makes intelligent sense: as Ruby Hughes points out in her cover note, Samuel’s idiom relates back to both Mahler’s style and to Alban Berg’s striking radicalisation of this. Samuel’s text for Clytemnestra, composed in 1994, comes from Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon – about the Greek commander, back from the Trojan war, who is killed by his wife in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter on the way to Troy ten years earlier.

Samuel’s musical response is something of a tour de force – at once fiercely dramatic and always coherent, laid out in a lucid seven-section sequence (‘The Deed’, at the midway point, is for orchestra only), and presenting a major opportunity to its soloist. Ruby Hughes rises to the challenge with bombproof technical strength and control, plenty of firepower where needed, and a thrilling instinct for capturing the persona of this fearsome anti-heroine. She gets impressive support from Jac van Steen and the orchestra, who have evidently rehearsed their demanding contribution up to the hilt.

They and Hughes also explore the rapturous soundworld of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder with mesmerising poise and finesse: I’ve never heard the opening line of ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!’ sung more beautifully, nor lovelier cor anglais-playing in ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. And superlative justice is done to the complex range of vocal expression and orchestral invention in the young Berg’s song-cycle – a neglected early 20th-century masterwork, brilliantly delivered here.


Malcolm Hayes