Champs Hill Records has already given us a set of chamber music by Ludwig Thuille, the talented Munich composer and childhood friend of Richard Strauss. This release offers a generous and welcome conspectus of his song output. Comparisons with Strauss (the two men set some of the same texts) and other well known contemporaries are inevitable, and they reveal Thuille as fluent but conservative, highly skilled at musical description but reluctant – or unable – to capture the psychological depth that distinguishes the best song composers.
For a fin de siècle composer, his songs also occasionally seem almost prudish. This is the case with ‘Ganymed’ (a setting not of Goethe but of the Austrian poet Robert Hamerling) and Thuille’s responses to ‘Allerseelen’ and ‘Die Nacht’, which sound dutiful and distinctly PG when compared with Strauss’s unapologetically grown-up settings.
The first three tracks, the Op 31 settings for three voices and piano from 1904, are an exception, though, with a sensuousness and harmonic daring that’s often lacking elsewhere. Here Sophie Bevan and Jennifer Johnston are briefly joined by Mary Bevan, to irresistible effect. Throughout the rest of the set, Johnston proves the more persuasive interpreter, offering a rich, powerful mezzo and a natural responsiveness to the text in her performances of what, by and large, seem the better songs – her solo ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ is a highlight. Sophie Bevan has some lovely moments but, by contrast, often feels less comfortable. Both singers should be applauded for bringing this long-forgotten repertoire to life, though, as should Joseph Middleton, who brings sparkle to Thuille’s imaginative and charming accompaniments.