Monday, January 28, 2013

Der Erlkoenig

Patrick Vaz discusses Sir Walter Scott's vivid English translation of the famous Goethe poem today, and mentions the musical settings of the original German. Here's the German poem and a few performances of Schubert's great setting, plus a bonus.

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

"Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?" –
"Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?" –
"Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif."

"Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel' ich mit dir;
Manch' bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand." –

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?" –
"Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind." –

"Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehen?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein." –

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?" –
"Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. –"

"Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt." –
"Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!" –

Dem Vater grauset's, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh' und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

We might as well start with a few of the best. Here's the great bass Alexander Kipnis, in 1939, with slightly eccentric German, but who cares?

And here's Frida Leider in 1941, a few years past her retirement from the stage, but still in beautiful voice and dramatically terrifying. She was a superlative Bruennhilde and Isolde, after all. I particularly love the singer and pianist's willingness to play with the tempo; there are some huge ritards that, trust me, no singer today would make.

Speaking of things a modern singer would never do, here's Lilli Lehman in 1906. She was far past her prime (you can really tell this), but still formidable. I love the portamento at "mit seinem Kind."

Here is the French dramatic soprano Germain Lubin, whose Erlkoenig voice is marvelously ethereal until the very end, and whose child is increasingly frightened. A great performance that builds with remarkable power.

Putting this together, I listened to a number of recordings of this song. DF-D is of course excellent but dull compared to the earlier singers, at least in the take I heard. He is too mannerly. (There must be many D-FD renditions of this song around, of course.)

Then there's Thomas Quasthoff: dominated by a robotic pianist. Honestly, this needs to sound like there's a driven horse, desperate father, and panicky child on stage, not a machine. Give it a listen; then go back and listen to what Leider and Kipnis's pianists do.

And for a change, here's the wonderful Gerald Finley in Loewe's setting of the poem.


Keith said...

Just a typo, I'm sure, but you did mean to refer to Leider's "ritards" and not her "retards," yes?

Lisa Hirsch said...

Indeed I did, thanks. It's now fixed.

Tom DePlonty said...

I guess I'd agree that Spencer tends to be very chaste, but sometimes his restraint really works - Spencer and Quasthoff recorded a Winterreise I like a whole bunch.

For the record, it should be noted that Erlkönig is pretty terrifying for the pianist. The accompaniment is as ungracious as it gets - those constant fast octave triplets are just nasty.

john_burke100 said...

Haven't listened to them all yet. but I agree with you about Kipnis' German. Less of a problem here than in his "Four SErious Songs" which I find just about un-listenable because of his clumsy reading of the texts.

Do you know who the pianists are? I think that's the hardest piano part in the lieder repertoire--I remember reading that Schubert admitted he faked the octaves, as I do when called on to play this.
There's a YouTube version by Anne-Sofie van Otter with orchestra (Abbado) and subtitles. I think she really nails the song.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Absolutely, about the murderous piano part. I wonder if it's any easier on a period piano, where the action is so much lighter than on a modern concert grand.

I am fine with chaste restraint, but not with a pianist who sounds like a metronome.

joXn said...

Great post; thank you! I also recommend taking a look at Ian Bostridge's rendition; his stage presence has my hairs on end when I watch it, and he demonstrates your point about modern tempi without being ruined by a robotic pianist.

Zwölftöner said...

I would say, having been accused of a Bostridge animus by the man himself, that of all the 'mannered' versions (in the most positive sense of the word) I find his hard to beat.

Sibyl said...

Didn't Von Stade record a version in the early '80s? I took a few cassettes with me for a year spent in Shanghai, 1986-87, and remember listening to this obsessively (well, when you have 1 shoe box full of music to last a whole year, you listen to all of it obsessively).

Lisa Hirsch said...

John, I don't know who the pianists are for the earlier singers but will check around. That information is surely available.

I'm going to put up a second posting of performances, with Bostridge, Anderson, and von Otter, will look for von Stade as well.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I looked around for von Stade with no success; it's not on YouTube....