Collection: Italian Songs

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven,Mozart & Haydn,Schubert
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Songs by Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart & Haydn
PERFORMER: Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano), András Schiff (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 440 297-2 DDD

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Beethoven wrote more than 80 songs over a period of 18 years, though only Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey have focused any consistently serious attention on them as far as recording is concerned. It’s good, then, to hear a new selection from Olaf Bär, which moves from Beethoven’s settings of Gellert to Goethe, and contains much that lies in between.

Bär brings a hushed sense of Romantic pantheism to the cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Dearest Beloved), as his words are carried on the movement of the warm wind which breathes through and unifies this group of songs. He is at his best here and in the Gellert Odes and Spiritual Songs with their long vowels and sustained phrases praising a primarily heroic God of strength. His lighter Goethe songs are less successful: the voice never really achieves lift-off, and even the May Song remains earthbound.

This selection deliberately excludes the settings of the Italian poet Metastasio which Beethoven made in his student days. By a nice fluke of timing, Cecilia Bartoli’s new disc focuses on them as part of a programme in which she and András Schiff are well cast to explore the responses of central Europeans such as Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Haydn to the Italian muse.

The essential simplicity of songs like Beethoven’s ‘La partenza’ and the two nicely contrasting aspects of impatience in ‘L’amante impaziente’ free both composer and performers to enjoy the sighing inflections, supple enunciation and chattering, fluttering keyboard writing.

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Mozart’s radiant aria ‘Ridente la calma’, exquisitely shaped by both Bartoli and Schiff, is followed by a light-filled selection of Schubert settings; and Haydn’s dramatic scena, Arianna a Naxos, lively with Bartoli’s quick response to every fleeting emotion, makes a formidable finale to this finely conceived and enthusiastically realised recital. Hilary Finch