One of the most convincing cases for a German song to be sung in English is also one of the oldest. On January 10, 1934, the Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene, aged nearly 70, went into the studio and made a recording for Columbia of Schubert’s ‘Der Leiermann’ (the last song in the cycle Winterreise); here, ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’. Words and music are held in extraordinary balance, making for one of the most gripping performances ever recorded. Priceless!
Lieder (or mélodie) sung in English was, back in the record industry’s early days, far more common than it is today, and there are numerous examples. From towards the end of the 78 era, Kathleen Ferrier made a live recording in English at the Royal Albert Hall of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge in an orchestration by Sir Malcolm Sargent. Rarely has the third song, here ‘O death, how bitter thou art’, sounded so arresting and laden with emotion.
When Benjamin Britten came to record Bach’s St John Passion he opted for a translation made by Imogen Holst and Peter Pears (who sings the role of the Evangelist). Britten responded to the Passion’s drama and gives a magnificent performace with some superb soloists (Heather Harper and Alfreda Hodgson on top form). If you crave a modern, historically informed approach to the same work, also in English, consider David Temple and the Crouch End Festival Chorus’s Chandos recording with a superb line-up of soloists and, needless to say, choral singing of a very superior order. (Neil Jenkins’s fine and communicative version of the text is used and, entrusted to Robert Murray’s vivid Evangelist in particular, makes a terrific impact.)
Another great choral work is Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. Powerful and moving in its original German, for English speakers the so-called London edition, dispensing with the orchestra and using two pianists in its stead, has comparable power, above all in the movements with baritone soloist (here Marcus Farnsworth). Joseph Fort’s recent recording with the Choir of King’s College, London and pianists James Baillieu and Richard Uttley makes a very convincing case for the edition. Haydn’s two oratorios started their life in English as Gottfried van Swieten based his German libretti on English originals.
Many people have retro-fitted the pieces – Sir Simon Rattle’s version of The Creation conveys the work’s vitality wonderfully, and his English-speaking soloists convey the narrative with a story-teller’s art and immediacy.