At the heart of this programme of Beethoven songs performed by Ian Bostridge and Sir Antonio Pappano is the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved). It dates from 1816, the year that saw the publication of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. Setting six poems by Alois Jeitteles, it is generally acknowledged to be the first example of a song cycle, a genre that became important in the 19th and 20th centuries. Beethoven creates a coherent whole, linking songs together with brief piano interludes and closing the circle by recalling material from the opening song in the final song.
“Somehow the most concentrated 13 or 14 minutes of music that Beethoven ever wrote,” is how Antonio Pappano describes An die ferne Geliebte. For Ian Bostridge, the cycle is an expression of Beethoven the romantic rather than the striving, heroic Beethoven we often perceive in the symphonies and concertos. “It’s a distillation of Beethoven as lover, but his beloved is far away and he can never reach her. The sadness of that is so poignant.” (Beethoven was notoriously unlucky in love.) It is through the manifestations of nature – and through his songs – that the lover in An die ferne Geliebte senses a connection with his beloved. Bostridge draws an analogy with the composer: “Beethoven puts his feelings into music on a piece of paper and sends it out to the world. It is rather like the dedication he made on the score of the Missa Solemnis.” After he had written that epic choral work, which came a few years after An die ferne Geliebte, Beethoven inscribed the score with the words: “Vom Herzen, möge es wieder, zu Herzen gehen!” – “From the heart: may it go in turn to the heart.”
Among the other songs on the album, the best known is the rapturously lyrical ‘Adelaide’, which dates from the mid-1790s. In a very different vein is a song to an Italian text, ‘In questa tomba oscura’ (1806-7), in which a dead man admonishes his faithless lover: “The textures of the piano reflect the darkness and bitterness of the text,” says Antonio Pappano. He also feels that Beethoven had an influence on the Italian opera: “I don’t think Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini would have been possible without Beethoven.”
Bostridge and Pappano are joined by violinist Vilde Frang and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt for eight of Beethoven’s charming settings (in English) of folksongs from the British Isles. Between 1809 and 1823, the composer arranged more than 160 song melodies at the request of his publisher in Edinburgh, George Thomson. “These arrangements were essentially commercial ventures,” explains Bostridge, “but Beethoven put some amazing music for piano trio into them.” Pappano concurs: “They’re real drawing-room music because they are for piano, voice, violin and cello. When we all play together, it’s like a family making music at home.”
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