Notes and Editorial Reviews
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo
Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo.
John Tomlinson (b); David Owen Norris (pn)
CHANDOS 10785 (62:52
Text and Translation)
What an interesting idea: a program of songs to Michelangelo’s
poems. What a challenge to use a deep bass to sing them. In a note to this recording, Tomlinson tells us that he had known Wolf’s settings since his student days and only much later discovered Shostakovich’s, which planted the idea of a Michelangelo evening, with Britten’s settings, as well. This took place first in 2010, at the Semperoper in Dresden.
The first obvious difficulty, of course, is that Britten’s songs (1940) were written not simply for a tenor, but a specific tenor and the qualities he brought to the set. David Owen Norris has a most-helpful comment upon the work of transposition, which he tells us was not simply that of lowering the pitch but of making certain other acoustical accommodations that lower pitch entailed in the piano. Tomlinson’s is a large and impressive voice, eminently suited to the heavy, commanding roles he has represented so successfully on stage. It has to be said, though, that his way of delivering these love poems is more hortatory than amorous. If Tomlinson sounds occasionally like Boris Godunov in these, that’s part of the price one must pay, I suppose. But despite the best intentions of both performers, I think Tomlinson’s is not the voice for these songs.
Hugo Wolf’s three Michelangelo settings (1897), written for bass, were among his last completed compositions. Though these are love songs, they are suffused with melancholy at the inability to reach that love. I think these two sets would have worked well in the recital context they were gathered for.
As good programmers, Tomlinson and Norris have saved the best for last. Shostakovich’s Suite of 11 songs (1974) is his next to last finished work and speaks much of death and despair. It has mostly been performed and recorded in Shostakovich’s later orchestration, but is given here is the stark and dramatic version of its first performance, for bass and piano. All the problems Tomlinson has in the earlier sets—a tendency to wobble and a tendency to slide up to succeeding notes—are only occasionally apparent here. He sounds and is in full command of all his resources. This is far and away the best performance on the disc, and alone is worth the price of entry. It is a powerful reading, well worth getting to know.
One must also say good words about David Owen Norris’s accompaniments, as well as his fine adaptations of Britten’s piano parts. There is one editing bump, between tracks 15 and 16.
FANFARE: Alan Swanson
Works on This Recording
Michelangelo Lieder (3) by Hugo Wolf
John Tomlinson (Bass),
David Owen Norris (Piano)
Written: 1897; Vienna, Austria
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