Peter Heise: Songs for Male Voices
01 February 2014
International Record Review
William HedleyDanish composer Peter Heise was a Brahms contemporary
, dying miserably young in 1879. He was originally destined to be a lawyer, but music took precedence, with Niels Gade the most eminent of his teachers. A fairly extensive catalogue features two operas, one of which, Drot og Marsk
(King and Marshal) is still regularly performed in Denmark and has been recorded twice. The more recent version (1992), conducted, like this collection, by Michael Schønwandt, is available on Chandos.
Heise spent much of his adult life in academia, and most of the music on this disc was composed for the student choir of which he was the conductor. It is easy on the ear, and expertly written for men's voices. There is a certain heartiness to much of it, and though there is considerable variety from one piece to the next, selective listening is probably the best way to experience it. Heise was a keen collector of folk songs and elements of folk style are frequently encountered in these pieces .
The disc opens with Introduction and Waltz, depicting a festive evening where the lower voices deliciously imitate the kind of waltz rhythm accompaniment usually allotted to a pianist's left hand. It must have been tempting for the composer to resort to feline imitation in Three Cats, but mercifully he preferred to concentrate on the violence employed by the neighbour to disperse the nocturnal singing creatures. It 's very short, great fun, and cruelly difficult for the choir. The following song, Jutland, having become, with the passage of time, a national song sung in schools, is given simply but with all the requisite ardour. Also challenging by its rapidity is Farewell to Winter, where the composer has chosen to take the wintry wind as the main theme rather than the 'mild and soft' coming spring.
Three characters - a lark, a young girl and an 'honest student' - share their thoughts on the changing seasons in it's Autumn, allowing the composer to employ what seems to be a favourite device of contrasting a solo quartet with the main body of the choir. The Beauties is another song that leads us to imagine that the choir was a highly accomplished body; furthermore, it deals with a subject that will surely have appealed to the student singers, as the speaker runs his eye over a gro up of young women befo re glee fully listing their qualities! The collec tio n closes with a simple yet touching setting of Shakespeare's dirge from Cymbeline, 'Fear no more the heat of the sun' , though the unsettling final prayers 'No exorcisor harm thee' - which would not have fitted the simple yet touching tone of Heise's setting, are omitted .
Some welcome variety of timbre is provided by Spring and Summer, a set of four songs for two sopranos, alto, baritone and piano that Heise collected to form a kind of cycle and published in 1879 with a dedication to his wife. The songs are uniformly cheerful, the tone being set by the 'chirping bird' of the first song and delightfully evoked in both the vocal lines and in the lovely, lilting piano accompaniment. Heise also set one of the poems, The Wild Rose Bush, for men 's voices. More restrained, almost melancholy, it is sung here by a solo quartet.
The booklet lists 29 members of two choirs, the Danish National Vocal Ensemble and the larger Danish National Concert Choir. Florian Helgarth is the chorus master of the larger group, and Marcus Creed is soon to become the Vocal Ensemble's Chief Conductor. With such names you'd expect a fine standard, and you certainly get it, and in splendid sound too. Texts are printed in the booklet, in Danish alongside an English translation, important as you really won't get much out of these songs if you don't know what the singers are on about. A long essay by Anne Ørbæk Jensen includes valuable background information about the composer, as well as commentaries on the songs. These are only intermittently enlightening, as the music is so straightforward that there really isn't much to say about it, and they are discussed in a different order from that in which they are performed, so a fair amount of searching is required. The music, however, speaks for itself, and most eloquently.