Orchestral Songs: Hunold Singuf, Op. 4; Lorelei, Op. 13 etc
Mojca Erdmann (soprano), Anke Vondung (mezzo-soprano), Mauro Peter (tenor), Benjamin Appl (baritone); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Guillermo García Calvo
Pentatone PTC 5187 023 70:13 mins
In all cases but one, this lavish album of orchestral songs by forgotten late-Romantic Hans Sommer (1837-1922) is their world premiere recording. The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin sounds rich and glossy, with four strong soloists.
Yet I was repeatedly left with the sensation of a composer trying too hard. Most of the songs are dense and meandering. The already opaque ballad ‘Der König von Thule’ loses all meaning. ‘Mignons Heimath’, better known to listeners as ‘Kennst du das Land’, is pure hubris; despite Anke Vondung’s sympathetic performance, one longs for Wolf’s far subtler handling of freely-structured phrases. ‘Sir Aethelbert’ lasts eight interminable minutes, with lines like ‘How tender, how slender, how young, how soft, how blushing and how hot…courting an elf is love’s highest heavenly kingdom.’
An opera composer manqué, Sommer (a former science professor) leaned towards heavy orchestration, chromatic harmonies and irregular phrasing. His melodies are slippery and unfocused, laden with ‘gestures’ but rarely achieving a coherent and memorable shape.
There are some effective moments, such as the opening of ‘Rastlose Liebe’, the harp-accompanied ‘Auf dem Felsen’ from the opera Lorelei, and the almost unbreakable poem ‘Wandrers Nachtlied II’. But Sommer’s elephantine tread flattens the delicate vulnerability of Heine’s poem ‘Nachts in der Kajüte’. The songs for chamber ensemble are more digestible, though the ponderously folksy Hunald Singuf outstays its welcome.
It’s unclear that Sommer’s uneasy amalgam patchwork of Wolf, Wagner and Strauss laced with Mahler really deserves this Rolls-Royce treatment. Perhaps correspondingly, the singers sound somewhat detached, despite their polished performances.