The Other Erlking: Nicholas Mogg and Jâms Coleman present the songs and ballads of Carl Loewe

A cursory scan down the contents list of The Other Erlking, recently released by baritone Nicholas Mogg and pianist Jâms Coleman on the Champs Hill label, might mislead, titles such as ‘Erlkönig’, ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’, ‘Die wandelnde Glocke’ suggesting familiar fare by Schubert and Schumann, or as transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt.  But, the ‘Other’ in Mogg and Coleman’s title is instructive, for what the duo present are ballads and songs by Carl Loewe (1796-1869) who, during a long career in the city of Stettin – where he was appointed professor at the Gymnasium in 1820, organist at the Jakobikirche the following year, and then musical director of the city, a post he held until 1866 – established a reputation across Europe both as a composer and a singer.

Loewe was born two months after Schubert.  The latter contributed over 600 songs to the lieder repertoire; Loewe added about 400, of which about 150 are ballads, setting narrative texts, and 250 are shorter lyrics.  Only a handful of this prolific output are heard today, either in the recital hall or on disc (this is apparently the first Loewe album recorded by UK performers), and his rich oeuvre of piano and chamber works (included string quartets), operas (only one of which, Die Drei Wunsche (1834), was produced in his lifetime), church music and oratorios has been similarly side-lined. 

But, during his lifetime, as a composer of narrative song Loewe was lauded.  His ballads blend folk and art idioms, and he frequently performed them himself, touring extensively as a composer-recitalist – he reportedly had a fulsome baritone and an engaging concert presence – and establishing a favourable reputation in German-speaking lands (Prussia, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Mainz, Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen) and beyond.  He visited Vienna in 1844, London in 1847 (where he performed before Prince Albert) and in the 1850s travelled to Sweden, Norway and France.  It was in Vienna, as Loewe reported in a letter to his wife, that he was first dubbed ‘The North German Schubert’, by the composer-critic Johann Vesque von Püttlingen. 

Nicholas Mogg and Jâms Coleman first came across Loewe’s songs in 2015 during their postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music, while working with Richard Stokes – Professor of Lieder at the Academy and author of the informative liner note here – to prepare an Oxford Lieder Young Artists’ Platform recital that year.  The concert engagements that followed their success at the OLF, and a residency at the Two Moors Festival, enabled them to explore Loewe’s songs and ballads more fully and the result of their six years of collaborative research, reflection and performance is The Other Erlking.

The tessitura of these songs is wide, and at times the vocal lines seem to me to sit quite high, venturing into tenorial regions and lingering there, but this doesn’t present Nicholas Mogg with any apparent obstacles.  His baritone is free and true, and, relishing the colours and contours of the German texts, he projects richly at the bottom and with ease and clarity at the top.  Mogg is a natural and engaging storyteller who allows himself, like one of Dickens’ narrators, to be enchanted by his own tale, slipping into his characters’ emotions as he relives their conversations or recounts their experiences.  He’s not afraid to embrace the hyperbole and sentimentality in which Loewe, again recalling Dickens, is prone to indulge, and rightly so since they fuel the dramatic and emotional surge of the songs.  Coleman, too, appreciates the bravura of the piano’s scene-setting introductions, and is an agile, adaptable accompanist when the singer-actor takes the limelight; in the piano postludes, he deftly brings the sung stories to swift and assured conclusion.

Loewe seems to have enjoyed journeying to the land of faerie and the supernatural.  Several of the songs presented here are rooted in fairy-tale and folklore, including ‘Herr Oluf’, ‘Erlkönig’ and the opening song, ‘Tom der Reimer’, a late setting dating from around 1860 which is based upon an anonymous 18th-century Scottish ballad and tells of the seduction of carefree Tom by a beautiful Fairy Queen, and the lovers’ subsequent elopement to the twinkling, tinkling accompaniment of her horse’s silver bells.

Introduced by the piano’s pianissimo pixie-pirouetting, à la Mendelssohn, Mogg displays his diverse and apt vocal hues as the sectional narrative unfolds.  His baritone is plushly upholstered for the authoritative introduction to Tom, who lies beside the pebble burn of Huntley Castle; acquires a dreamy lightness as the fair lady approaches on her white steed, born aloft by the piano’s glittery acciaccatura sixths which evoke the enchantment of the silver bell; swells with intensity when the awe-struck Tom declares, “Du bist die Himmelskönigin!” (You must be the Queen of Heaven!); and is intimate and sensuous for the Queen’s reply.  Tom’s felicitous heartbeats tingle and throb through the piano part as she invites him to sing, kiss her lips and serve him for seven years, and Mogg’s baritone glows with strength and pride as Tom puffs up his chest and accepts her offer.  Finally, a quasi-kitsch sentimentality colours the tender consummation: “Er küßte sie, sie küßte ihn”.  It’s hard to know if Loewe’s four-square harmony, lyrical clichés, and the lovers’ final hoof-clacking gallop into the sunset, are tongue-in-cheek wryness or earnest simplicity.  Whatever, Mogg’s and Coleman’s rendition is absolutely charming, and the ironic contrast of the vocal ‘swoon’ down to a low Bb as the sparkly bells “ring brightly” at the close is delicious.

Loewe was drawn to set Goethe’s poetry 51 times, so Stokes tells us, and his ‘Erlkönig’ – one of the three Op.1 Ballads – inevitably invites comparison with Schubert’s setting.  But, Loewe’s song stands on its own merits.  Coleman whips up the whirring rustle of the wind-flustered trees as the father flees with his child, only for the Erlking’s voice to surf the tide of whispering branches, calling to the child, softly at first, then more insistent, and finally fierce and undeniable.  The Erlking’s coaxing entreaties are rigidly set within a tonic-major arpeggio (the song shares the G minor tonality of Schubert’s setting) which is at first soothing, then troubling and ultimately menacingly intransigent, the vocal line marked with steely, stabbing accents.  The duplicitous appeals slip with increasing alacrity back into the piano’s narrative of the nocturnal ride, impressing upon the listener the inescapable doom that they herald, and Mogg and Coleman shape the dramatic pace and structure with skill and judgement. “[D]as Kind war tot” pronounces Mogg at the close, with stark, twisting pain, as the voice rises a poignant minor sixth, and the minor-major contortions of the brief postlude grimly press home the tragedy.

The Erlking’s daughter resurfaces in ‘Herr Oluf’, once again enticing, once again life-ending: she kills the poor Lord who has the misfortune to encounter her, when he refuses her invitation to the dance.  Coleman conjures more Mendelssohnian mischief here, and Mogg – as the temptress insists and the fated Lord Oluf adamantly resists – displays a fine dark bass-baritone register and compelling rhetorical stature, which he tempers to dramatise the tender concern of Oluf’s shocked mother when she is confronted by her son’s pallor and weakness.  There’s a terrifically Hadean vocal plunge down to a low E, darkened and deepened by a viciously accented piano full-stop, as Oluf is pulled down to the Erlking’s realm.

Another of the Op.1 ballads, ‘Edward’, draws upon a Celtic folk legend, the German translation of which by Johann Gottfried Herder Loewe sets.  It takes the form of a dialogue between Edward and his mother: pressed to divulge the reason that his sword is bloody, Edward confesses that he has killed his father.  Questioned further about the fate of his wife, children and, lastly, his ‘Mother dear’, Edward flings at the latter a howling accusation that it was at her urging that he committed patricide.  Mogg brilliantly captures the brooding, ‘what is not said’, quality of the dialogue between mother and son, as the 6/8 and 2/4 meters alternate with dramatic pertinence, by turns pressing and resisting, just as the repetitions, “Mutter, mutter”, “Edward, Edward”, tug tensely, tormentedly at each other.  The mood is troubled, the dynamics unpredictable; the piano’s scalic flurries are restless, the rapid triplets agitating the raw vocal exchanges.  The climax is melodramatic – it can be nothing else! – a flood of anguish and angry accusation. 

Alongside the longer, multi-section narrative ballads there are simpler songs, and many have a tender sweetness.  The two Wandrers Nachtlied Goethe-settings are striking.  The repeated cushioning chords and the eloquent tailoring of the vocal phrases in Wandrers Nachlied I, ‘Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’, imbue the short lyric with a Schubertian pathos, and Loewe’s language is enriched by greater harmonic nuance here.  This song is beautifully sung by Mogg, with a lovely piano wistfulness which he knows not to overdo, letting the simplicity speak for itself, which renders the abruptness of the final foretelling, “Warter nur! balde/ Ruhest du auch” (Wait” soon you too will be at peace), all the more disturbing.  Wandrers Nachlied II, ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’, issues a more intense appeal to the divine to ease earthly strife, and here the performers measure the intensity judiciously against the song’s brevity.

‘Die Uhr’ Op.123 No.3 is a Hardy-esque account of a watch, fashioned with skill by ‘great master’, the owner of which rues its rapid ticking which marks the progress and passing of hours and of lives.  There’s a lovely realism and honesty here, and touching poignancy when, slipping into the minor mode and with blanched voice, the poet-speaker’s horological reflections dolefully acknowledge the inevitable – “Doch stunde sie einmal stille,/ Dann wars um sie geschehen.” (But should it stop going, that would be the end.) – the piano’s tolling pedal note signalling the subsuming of Time by Eternity.

‘Spirito Santo’ Op.143 confirms Loewe’s gift for melody, evident both in the grace and delicacy of the piano introduction and in the directness of the vocal line, which Mogg sings with lovely earnestness.  The balancing of light and shade, of weight and air, is compelling judged here.  The gentle religiosity of ‘Ich bin ein guter Hirte’ conveys a sincerity worthy of J.S. Bach, Mogg’s baritone swelling comfortingly with the devout shepherd’s assurance, “auch selbige muß ich führen” (I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice).

Other songs – ‘Der Komet’, ‘Der Hirt auf der Brück’, ‘Odins Meeresritt’ – make less lasting impact: they are dramatic ‘in the moment’, and persuasively performed, but the vivid immediacy of their more conventional gestures is quick to fade.  The folksy charm of ‘Heinrich der Vogler’ feels rather facile, the piano’s rocking cradle in ‘Die Mutter an der Wiege’ somewhat predictable, and over the course of the disc one becomes aware of the expressive limitations of Loewe’s unadventurous harmonic palette.  ‘Süßes Begräbnis’ Op.62 No.4 is too saccharine for my tastebuds, but it is sung with tenorial dulcetness by Mogg, above Coleman’s gentle, even swaying, and the ebbing quality, with no loss of vocal warmth, of the final poignant parting, “Schäferin, ach, wie haben/ Sie dich so süß begraben!” (Shepherdess, O how sweetly have they buried you!), is touching.

‘The best ballads,’ Loewe wrote, ‘are those that wholly exclude narration by placing the course of the drama in the protagonists’ speech.’  And, that seems to sum up the achievement that this lovely disc celebrates and embodies.  For, though one might wish for more organic motivic or structural development, or for greater harmonic sophistication, the best of Loewe’s songs tell their stories with a spontaneity and dramatic immediacy that Mogg – an actor-singer to rival Loewe himself, surely – and Coleman capture brilliantly. 

Claire Seymour

The Other Erlking: Nicholas Mogg (baritone), Jâms Coleman (piano)

Carl Loewe: ‘Tom der Reimer’ Op.135a, Nachgelassene Gedichte Op.69 No.6 – ‘Der Komet’, Die Uhr’ Op.123 No.3, ‘Der Erlkönig’ Op.1 No.3, ‘Die wandelnde Glocke’ Op.20 No.3, ‘Edward’ Op.1 No.1, Wandrers Nachlied I – ‘Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’, Wandrers Nachlied II – ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’, ‘Der Hirt auf der Brück’ Op.130 No.4, ‘Spirito Santo’ Op.143, ‘Odins Meeresritt’ Op.118, ‘Süßes Begräbnis’ Op.62 No.4, ‘Heinrich der Vogler’ Op.56 No.1, ‘Ich bin ein guter Hirte’, ‘Die Mutter and der Wiege’, ‘Der alte Goethe’, ‘Herr Oluf’ Op.2 No.2.

Champs Hill Records CHRCD165 [60:18]

ABOVE: Nicholas Mogg and Jâms Coleman (c) Patrick Allen