Playlist: Vocal constellations

Hugo Shirley Mon 11th September 2017

Music for vocal duets and small ensembles

Music for several voices has tended, historically speaking, to be designed more for the drawing room than the concert hall – modest works, often of a folksy, faux-naïve character, for amateurs to sing for the simple joy of singing. That hasn’t, however, stopped some of the greatest singers turning their hand to such music. Brahms’s Liebeslieder-Walzer, little gems, have attracted many starry quartets (plus starry pianists). The most touching recording is perhaps one of the earliest, with an astonishing line-up of Irmgard Seefried, Kathleen Ferrier, Julius Patzak and Horst Günter, recorded at the Edinburgh Festival in 1952 with Clifford Curzon and Hans Gál at the piano. The sound is imperfect, but the gentleness they bring to ‘Zum Schluss’ (actually from Brahms’s Neue Liebeslieder-Walzer) is irresistible. Another top-flight quartet to record those works was that consisting of Edith Mathis, Brigitte Fassbaender, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. They went further, though, recording a great deal more of the composer’s often exquisite output for vocal ensemble. Among the gems they uncovered is the beautiful ‘Der Abend’. Dvo∑ák’s charming Moravian duets offer gentle, highly melodic music for the same domestic market that Brahms had appealed to. Their character is captured beautifully in performances by Genia Kühmeier and Bernarda Fink, with Christoph Berner at the piano. Natalie Dessay and husband Laurent Naouri present something more like urban sophistication in Poulenc’s only duet – though the voices are kept apart – his ‘Colloque’. Finally, we turn to the lighter end of the spectrum. First is the delightfully spritely and witty ‘The Girls’ by the Swedish polymath Gunnar Wennerberg (1817-1907). It’s sung here with a brilliant twinkle in the eye by Elisabeth Söderström and Kerstin Meyer, with Jan Eyron at the piano. I’ve avoided Rossini’s spurious ‘Cats’ Duet’, recorded by many a starry duo, despite the fact that it’s unlikely to have been by Rossini at all. Instead, we finish with the delightful ‘La regata veneziana’ from Soirées musicales. Letting their hair down here with Gerald Moore at the piano are the sopranos Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Victoria de los Angeles, two of the greatest singers of the 20th century. It doesn’t get much starrier than that!

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