The “Other” Mendelssohn’s Complete Songs

Fanny Mendelssohn0001

F. MENDELSSOHN: Morgenständchen.1 Ich kann wohl manchmal singen.3 Im herbst.4 Vorwurf.3 Traurige wege.4 Der Eichwald brauset.2 Gegenwart.3 Gleich Merlin, dem eitlen Weisen.4 Das Meer erglänzte weit hinaus.4 Fichtenbaum und Palme.4 Ach, die Augen sind es wieder.3 Die fruhen Gräber.2 Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß.1 Harfner’s Lied.4 Dämmerung sentke sich von oben.4 Suleika.1 Die Schiffende.1 Kein Blick der Hoffnung.3 Die Mainacht.2 Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh.4 Wanderers Nachtlied.4 Nach Süden.1 Wanderlied.1 Bergeslust1 / 1Susana Gaspar, sop; 2Kitty Whately, mezzo; 3Gary Griffiths, 4Manuel Walser, bar; Malcolm Martineau, pn / Champs Hill CHRCD124

Fanny Mendelssohn, often known by her married name of Hensel, was Felix’s sister and, by all accounts, just as precocious and brilliant musically as he. During their childhood and adolescence, they bounced ideas off each other, gave constructive criticism, praised when appropriate, and essentially developed together. Yes, their music was tonal, but it was also kissed by genius: brilliantly constructed, never too long, and almost always appropriate to the format. But as we all know, Fanny married, had children, and was then told by Felix to stop composing and tend to raising her family. She bristled but eventually obeyed. Towards the end of her brief life she couldn’t take it any more and began writing music again. But that is why her output is so much smaller than her brother’s.

This album of her complete songs is something of a mixed bag, but the quality of the music isn’t the problem. It was the decision to use not one, not two, but four different singers, and they are of uneven gifts. Soprano Susana Gaspar, who has but five songs, has a bright, clear voice that is pleasant to listen to and our second baritone, Manuel Walser, has a dark voice that slightly resembles that of Hermann Prey and is an outstanding interpreter. Our first baritone, however, Gary Griffiths, has an unsteady flutter in the voice that, despite a nice timbre, mars his singing pretty consistently, and mezzo Kitty Whately just gets by, also showing an uneven vibrato.

So much for a review of the singers. As for the songs, they are consistently excellent. Were you to play this CD for someone and tell them that these were little-known songs by Mendelssohn (which is technically true), they would be delighted by them. Like her brother Felix, Fanny wrote in a melodic but dramatic style, seldom using a strophic style as Schubert did in his most dramatic songs (Erlkönig, Der tod und das Mädchen, and several of the songs in Winterreise), but did use dramatic pauses in the musical flow to emphasize changes of mood. Traurige wege, a song based on the poetry of Nikolaus Lenau about lovers in the wood who pass by tombstones, is particularly excellent, but nearly all of these songs have their moments. She was a master of mood-setting and word-painting. Pianist Malcolm Martineau, who pushed for these songs to be recorded, is consistently excellent from start to finish, supporting his singers brilliantly and bringing out the flavor of the music with tasteful dynamics and phrasing.

In some of the songs Fanny alternates the major and minor with ease, i.e. in Fichtenbaum und Palme, and none of these songs lack interest. A virtuoso pianist like her brother, she could write for that instrument in her sleep and knew how to bring out its best side. In Die fruhen Gräber (The Early Gaves), a slow, moody song based on a poem by Friedrich Klopstock, she brings out mood and color superbly, as she also does in Heinrich Heine’s Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß? Interestingly, Fanny knew Heine personally and mostly disliked him. “He’s too affected,” she wrote, “speaks endlessly about himself…but if one has felt contempt for him ten times in a row, the eleventh tim he forces one to recognize that he’s a poet, a true poet!”

In addition to the songs being excellent, they are also programmed quite well. My only complaint was with the packaging. Nowhere on the CD cover, inlay or booklet were the singers for each song identified. I had to go to YouTube and listen to the two baritones in order to tell them apart, and took an educated guess as to which was singing what song, so if I made any errors don’t blame me, blame Champs Hill Records. Otherwise, this is a first-rate album that every lover of classical song should own.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “The “Other” Mendelssohn’s Complete Songs

    • Yes, it is helpful, but only because you provided the link. It is the responsibility of record companies to give such information in the booklet that comes with the physical CD. How was I supposed to know that the download booklet had more or different information from the printed booklet?

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