HAYDN: Complete Original Solo Songs with Piano – Elly Ameling, soprano/ Jorg Demus, piano – Pentatone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186185 (2 discs) (RQR Series, 4.0 channel), 75:50 + 66:09 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
The year 2009 is the Haydn year, when twenty days today on May 31st would mark the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death. Thus, the time has come to revisit with another critical look to herald “Papa Haydn.” Besides a C.V. of 104 symphonies, 68 string quartets, 52 piano sonatas, 14 masses and operas, and 3 great oratorios, Haydn also found time to compose songs. Of all his works, the songs belong more in the creative margin of Haydn’s oeuvre. Mind you, this does not preclude the interesting discoveries in this field.
For many listeners, Haydn the song-writer remains much of an unknown variable to a long equation, compared to his contemporaries – Mozart and Beethoven. Haydn’s Songs consist of four volumes, summing up to a total of 36 lieder, as well as 17 additional individual titles written for the soloist with piano accompaniment. This does not include his 440+ arrangements of Scottish, Irish and Welsh folk songs not included here. For this reason, Pentatone’s ambiguous title “Complete Songs” remains somewhat misleading. Despite so, Pentatone deserves the kudos for sweeping across the classical board with its reissues on artistically expensive and signature recordings from the archives of major labels, namely subsidiaries of Universal Music. Pentatone’s superb remastering, with greatly improved audio balance, begs for a re-examination to the artistic importance of these works.
Haydn published two sets of songs in 1781 and 1784 to German texts, and a decade later, he published two additional sets of English canzonettas, which are madrigal-like secular vocal works. When some of these Songs appear as part of a recitalist’s programme, noteworthy from those of Peter Schreier, Thomas Quasthoff or here, with Elly Ameling, most of the songs were chosen from the latter sets. Having said so, the German songs contain an attractive type of subtle humor and require a sensitive, subtle presentation from a soloist who is well-versed with this literature. With Elly Ameling, Haydn found an accomplished interpreter in these vocal gems.
These forty-eight songs are given such natural performances by Ameling and her accompanist Jörg Demus. In Ameling’s diction, there appear no linguistic difficulties, with both the English and German pronounced idiomatically and clearly like a local. Haydn’s lightness of touch is observed by both the singer and instrumentalist with consummate skills. While Ameling’s tone is sweet and creamy, she never tries to make the pieces more majestic than they should; instead, she goes to great efforts to focus on the clever details of highlighting the music’s bodily surface and literary expanse. As her faithful keyboard partner, Demus’ performance is along the same lines, contained in size but not expression, and the availability of this 2 CD set for less than $25 is surely an irresistible bargain.
Out of the two hours worth of music, perhaps the highlight of this collection could be singled-out to two songs Haydn published between 1795 and 1800: first, “The Spirit’s Song” and second, “O Tuneful Voice,” which are the quintessential examples finding Ameling with her fervent bel canto line and a glorious freedom of modulation. Taking as a whole, Haydn’s vocal oeuvres may not be essential representatives in the vocal literature to set against the real Lied masters – Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Richard Strauss. Nonetheless, in these recordings from 1980, both Ameling and Demus made an important achievement aiming to draw song-lovers’ attention. Pentatone has excellently engineered these archival recordings with improved sound, with texts in full conveniently printed in the booklet for the German illiterate. Undoubtedly, Elly Ameling fans will invest in this issue for the excellence of her interpretations; while for the Haydn collectors, it will be a great challenge to find more worthy vocalists who champion the full depth and breathe of Papa Haydn’s vocal oeuvres. What more can you ask?
— Patrick P.L. Lam