May should be the month (in the northern hemisphere at least) when spring nudges towards summer, when gardens have regained momentum and everything is bursting into life once more (it takes its name from the goddess of fertility, Maia). For poets, in particular, this resurgence of life reflects an inner blooming, an awakening of love, more often than not.
Robert Schumann’s cycle Dichterliebe, setting words by Heine, opens ‘In beautiful May, when the buds sprang, love sprang up in my heart’. It’s one of his greatest creations and, incidentally, was first heard in England sung by Harry Plunket Greene who opens the playlist opposite. Here, I’ve chosen our 2016 Gramophone Young Artist, Benjamin Appl. Andrea Chénier, in Act 4 of Giordano’s opera, awaiting execution in the prison at St Lazare, reflects on the fickleness of life and how, like a day in May, it can be extinguished with a gust of wind. Domingo captures the bitter-sweet mood to perfection.
May in Russia sees the cold banished and Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons finds the month in lyrical mood and, in Nikolai Lugansky’s Naïve recording, rather dreamy. Rimsky-Korsakov’s comic opera May Night, a love story with a happy, feel-good ending, takes place during a single night. The mood is wonderfully set in the work’s Overture, passionate, anticipatory and beautifully scored. Neeme Järvi conducts with his customary style and elegance.
Louis Vierne is best known as the composer of a vast amount of organ music, but he wrote some charming works for piano too, and his three Nocturnes, Op 34 were written during the winter of 1915-16. The middle piece draws its inspiration from the same Heine poem that opens Schumann’s Dichterliebe which Vierne encountered in a French translation by Gérard de Nerval. Attractively chromatic, it’s a work of delicate beauty, especially as recorded by Olivier Gardon as part of a complete Vierne piano music edition.
John Ireland’s setting for choir (SATB) uses a poem by the 16th-century poet Richard Edwardes, When May is in his Prime, that celebrates that vigorous sense of renewal, and Ireland’s choral writing is energised and vividly textured. Paul Spicer, a dab hand at this kind of music, draws a fine performance from the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir.
Schumann Dichterliebe Appl; Baillieu Champs Hill
Giordano Andrea Chénier – ‘Come un bel dì di maggio’ Domingo; Milnes RCA
Tchaikovsky The Seasons –May Lugansky Naïve
Rimsky-Korsakov May Night – Overture RSNO / N Järvi Chandos
Vierne Nocturnes – No 2, ‘Au splendide mois de mai’ Gardon Timpani
Ireland When May is in his Prime Spicer Somm