Marteau’s Enigmatic Songs

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MARTEAU: 8 Mélodies for Voice & Piano, Op. 19c.* 8 Songs with Piano Accompaniment, Op. 28.* Fünf Schilflieder für Bariton+ / *Vesselina Kasarova, mezzo; +Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar; *Galina Vracheva, +Günther Weißenborn, pn; +Franz Schmidtner, vla / Solo Musica SM263

The music of Henri Marteau (1874-1934) is scarcely well known; indeed, an obituary published after his death at age 60 said that “his compositions are only of secondary importance” to his work as a violinist, but I’m a curious bunny, so I wanted to hear for myself.

The songs contained on this CD are generally in the same tempo and mood, medium-slow. They are tonal but also chromatic; as an admirer of Max Reger as well as of the French composers like Saint-Saëns, Marteau combined the sensibilities of both schools. At least to judge by this material, he wrote for voice in a fairly small vocal range, choosing to focus on matching music to words and not to showing off the voice. The somewhat odd combination of Franco-Prussian styles may initially strike you as enigmatic, but as you continue listening you become more attuned to his aesthetic.

Vesselina Kasarova’s voice has changed somewhat since her glory years of the 1990s. It is brighter, a bit more acidic in quality now, not as creamy as it once was, which makes her sound much more Bulgarian and less Western European. She sounds a bit like older-age Irina Arkhipova. But her interpretive abilities have not dimmed with age. She is just as great an artist now as she was then, and this, above all else, is what is needed to project Marteau’s strange songs. I am, however, working at a disadvantage since the booklet contains no texts or translations, and even Emily Ezust’s otherwise estimable LiederNet Archive has very few of his song texts available. One wonders what the label was thinking in issuing a CD of obscure songs by an equally obscure composer without texts.

Nonetheless, in a song such as Stille fährt (the first of the 8 Songs Op. 28), one can admire Marteau’s interesting chromatic handling of the musical material. This group of songs, in fact, is generally livelier than the first, and in my view more varied in its musical material.

The songs for voice, piano and solo viola come from early radio studio recordings (1956) by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and one is reminded once again of how great he was in his prime. Yet again, despite the interest of the musical material, one is frustrated by a lack of texts. Without knowing what he’s singing about, it’s hard to gauge the effectiveness of the performances, but in his case we automatically assume that they’re good interpretations. The sound quality is surprisingly sharp and clear for its time, and here the music is much more Reger-like, meaning somewhat turgid in the harmony.

All in all, then, an enigmatic but interesting CD. Perhaps someday we’ll know what on earth they’re singing about.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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