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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809): "Pleasing Pain"

Stephan Van Dyck, tenor; Jean-Pierre Bacq, fortepiano

rec: 2004?, Franc-Waręt (B), Church
Arsis Classics - AS-00-A-640012-C (55'48")

A Pastoral Song (H XXVIa,27); Content (H XXVIa,36); Despair (H XXVIa,28); Fidelity (H XXVIa,30); Piercing eyes (H XXVIa,35); Pleasing Pain (H XXVIa,29); Recollection (H XXVIa,26); Sailor's Song (H XXVIa,31); She never told her love (H XXVIa,34); Sympathy (H XXVIa,33); The Mermaid's Song (H XXVIa,25); The Spirit's Song (H XXVIa,41); The Wanderer (H XXVIa,32); Tuneful voice (H XXVIa,42)

Haydn is hardly considered a song composer, like Mozart or Schubert. It is telling that a recent Dutch book, which contains a biography of the composer and a general overview of his oeuvre, doesn't devote a single line to any of Haydn's songs. In the 1780's Haydn had set a number of German poems - some of which written by famous poets, like Gleim and Lessing - for voice and keyboard. These are completely ignored today. Far better known and performed and recorded from time to time are his English canzonettas. These were composed during his second visit to England in 1794/95.

The incentive to compose these songs came from Anne Hunter, widow of the surgeon Sir John Hunter, whom Haydn befriended during his stay in London. The first six songs were published in 1794; the texts were written by Anne Hunter herself. In 1795 a second set was published, for which Ms Hunter had selected texts from several sources, including Shakespeare and Metastasio (in an English translation). Three additional songs were separately published, among them the last two songs on this disc (Tuneful Voice, The Spirit's Song), both again on texts by Anne Hunter.

These songs strongly vary in character. Some of them have a light touch, like A Pastoral Song and Piercing Eyes. But there are also very dramatic songs, like Fidelity, with its modulations and chromaticism, or The Wanderer which is characterised by frequent pauses. There is a strong connection between the vocal and the keyboard part, but in very different ways. In some songs the text is illustrated in the keyboard part, for instance in Sailor's Song. Although most of the canzonettas are strophic, Haydn varies the accompaniment when the text asks for it (in Pleasing Pain, for instance). On the other hand, in the last two items on this disc the keyboard isn't so much illustrating the text as evoking the atmosphere reflected by the text, which points into the direction of Schubert's songs.

When I first listened to this disc I got the impression that this was perhaps the best performance of these songs I had ever heard. I knew Stephan Van Dyck as a member of many ensembles of early music, like the Huelgas Ensemble, and as soloist in many recordings of baroque music. I never had heard him in this kind of repertoire, and I was happy to hear that he was doing very well in these songs. When I listened to this disc a second time I noticed some shortcomings, mainly in his dealing with the text. His English pronunciation is not always idiomatic, and he sometimes swallows a consonant ("wins" instead of "winds"). But he has a really beautiful voice, which is strong both in the lower and the upper register, agile and flexible, and his articulation is immaculate. His singing is expressive and shows a thorough understanding of the texts. He adds ornamentation where it is suitable to do so, and fortunately hardly uses any vibrato. The execution of the keyboard parts by Jean-Pierre Bacq is very colourful; he fully exploits the dynamic possibilities of his instrument. Only in the Sailor's Song I had liked the keyboard to be played with a little more aplomb. I also regret that Bacq uses a fortepiano with Viennese action rather than a (copy of a) Broadwood, the instrument Haydn played while in England.

The booklet is disappointing: it hardly gives any information about these songs, and the texts are printed in red on a background of yellow or deep orange - not a very bright idea, as they are hardly readable this way. No recording date is given nor are the numbers in the Hoboken catalogue. Information about the instrument is also lacking.

Despite the small shortcomings mentioned above this is a splendid recording which I have listened to with great pleasure and admiration. More than any other recording it has persuaded me of the quality and sheer beauty of these songs. What more one can ask for?

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

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Jean-Pierre Bacq

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