Notes and Editorial Reviews
Genia Kühmeier (sop);
Bernarda Fink (mez); Christoph Berner (pn)
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902081 (65:46 Text and Translation)
As other critics before me have lamented in these pages, the songs of
Antonin Dvorák remain unjustly neglected, partly due to the unfamiliarity of the Czech language and partly due to a longstanding prejudice that alleges his writing for piano to be clumsy and unidiomatic. That is a terrible shame, for perhaps only Schubert surpasses Dvorák as a natural melodist, and whenever they are given the opportunity to be heard the Czech master’s songs immediately win one’s heart with their radiant, innocent beauty and immediate infectiousness. This release presents what are easily Dvorák’s two best-known song cycles for solo voice, along with the somewhat lesser-known but not entirely neglected duets.
deserve particular attention for two reasons. First, they were the works that initially gained the attention of Brahms in 1876, who in turn commended them to his publisher, Fritz Simrock; Simrock’s publication of them proved commercially successful and provided Dvorák both the international attention and financial security needed to pursue a full-time career as a composer. This makes their current neglect all the more ironic. Second, they seem to face one further and utterly needless obstacle to regaining the popularity they deserve: It is terribly difficult to track down listings for recordings of them. Many websites do not turn up search results for them if they are not the first works listed on a disc (which is usually the case). ArkivMusic lists this album in the “songs” category but three other recordings in the “choral” category, even though all four are sung by soprano-mezzo duets. There have in fact been several recordings made by choral groups as well, but all of those, as well as most of the soprano-mezzo versions, appear to be out of print. With no pretensions to absolute completeness, here is a list of recordings that I managed to discover. Only the first four soprano-mezzo listings presently appear on ArkivMusic.
Barbara Bonney and Michelle Breedt (Orfeo, sung in German);
Barbara Bonney and Angelika Kirchschlager (Sony, sung in German);
Edita Gruberova and Vesselina Kasarova (Nightingale Classics);
Genia Kühmeier and Bernarda Fink (Harmonia Mundi);
Juliane Banse and Brigitte Fassbaender (Koch Schwann, sung in German);
Magdaléna Hajóssyová and Gabriella Benacková (GZ Classics);
Denise Konicek and Kamala Soparkar (Arsis Audio);
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Irmgard Seefried (EMI, sung in German).
Pavel Kühn, Kühn Mixed Chorus (Supraphon);
Bohmil Kulínský, Bambini di Praga (Multisonic);
Stanislav Mistr, Prague Singers (Brilliant Classics);
Josef Pancik, Prague Chamber Choir (Chandos).
James H. North reviewed the Bonney-Breedt Orfeo set in
29:6 and preferred it to the venerable Schwarzkopf-Seefried pairing, which he described as “too formal, too German to capture the lovely spirit of this cycle.” Of course, any German version is going to be “too German” compared with one in the original Czech, and so long as the singers are of an equal caliber I would give preference to a version in the original language. Fortunately, that is indeed the case here; Kühmeier and Fink are nothing short of enchanting, with a perfect blend of voices, and this recording immediately goes to the top of the list as the preferred version above every competitor. (As I also much prefer to hear these works sung with the intimacy of two solo voices, rather than two sections of a female chorus, my recommendation stands across the board.)
(Gypsy Songs) date from 1880; in this case the exercise of musical influence ran in the opposite direction, as Brahms would subsequently produce his own set of
, albeit for chorus, in 1887. Among the more notable prior recordings of this work are ones by Barbara Hendricks on EMI, reviewed by Ralph V. Lucano in 21:6; Anne Sofie von Otter on DG, reviewed by Joel Kasow in 24:2; Dagmar Pecková on Supraphon (paired with the
), reviewed by Raymond Beegle in 25:2; Bernarda Fink on Harmonia Mundi, reviewed by James H. North in 28:4; and Karita Mattila on Ondine, reviewed by Henry Fogel in 31:2 and Lynn René Bayley in 34:3. All received favorable reviews, with some reservations in the case of Hendricks, who sings in German as does von Otter. Against this formidable roster of competitors, Genia Kühmeier holds her own quite well; a few of her very top notes are a bit edgy and vinegary in the first song, but other than that her voice has the ideal timbre for this music and her Czech pronunciation and diction are impeccable. Being a soprano, her voice also lends a lighter and brighter sound to these pieces than one hears with Fink as a mezzo-soprano or Pecková as an alto.
, op. 99, dating from 1894 during Dvorák’s sojourn in America, are one of the composer’s testimonies to his own deep, abiding, almost childlike religious faith. Although a devout Roman Catholic, Dvorák drew his texts from the so-called “Bible of Kralice,” the first complete Czech translation of the Scriptures, originally published in six volumes in the city of that name between 1579 and 1593 by the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren, also called the Bohemian Brethren), the 15th-century proto-Protestant sect inspired by the teachings of Jan Hus. Although this cycle has enjoyed several previous recordings, most of those (such as that by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) have been in German translation. Among the Czech-language versions, only Pecková is competitive with Fink; while both are excellent, my preference is for the latter, whose work here is beyond praise.
In all cases Christoph Berner is an apt accompanist. The recorded sound is an improvement over Fink’s recording of Dvorák songs with Roger Vignoles on the same label, retaining depth and spaciousness but not laden with the latter’s excessive reverberation. Full texts in Czech, English, French, and German are well laid-out in a handsome booklet with fine supporting notes on the music and the performers. In sum, this disc is a priority acquisition for any lover of the music of Dvorák, or of Lieder in general.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Works on This Recording
Biblical Songs, Op. 99/B 185 by Antonín Dvorák
Bernarda Fink (Mezzo Soprano),
Christoph Berner (Piano)
Written: 1894; USA
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