ONE swallow may not make a summer, but how about three? Three being the number of powerful recording artists who have recently dusted off songs by Carl Loewe, who made his most lasting mark in ballads, that now unfashionable genre of songs that tell stories of romance, adventure and the uncanny.
Born in 1796, two months before Schubert, whom he outlived by 40 years, Loewe (pronounced LUH-veh) wrote some 400 songs over the course of his long life, as against Schubert's 600-plus, and in many cases they used the same texts. Unlike Schubert, who scarcely left Vienna, Loewe got around. A very capable tenor, he performed his songs widely, to his own virtuoso piano accompaniment. The crowned heads of Europe received him warmly. The king of Prussia was a fan, as were the British royals. When Loewe played for them, Prince Albert turned the pages.
The Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, on his recent Hyperion recording "The Ballad Singer," locates Loewe squarely within the relevant tradition. Frankly retro, heavily encrusted with deliberate rhetorical artifice, this album traces balladry from Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Wolf to the ripe Victorian kitsch of Arthur Sullivan ("The Lost Chord") and a saucy parody of Cole Porter ("The Tale of the Oyster").
The first Loewe selection, fittingly enough, is "Edward," Loewe's Opus 1, No. 1: a grisly colloquy between a blood-soaked son and the mother who has driven him to what turns out to have been his father's murder. Assisted by Julius Drake, Mr. Finley offers a shadowy, repressed reading, drawn out at an unusually slow tempo. Comic relief follows in the form of "Die Wandelnde Glocke," about a lad who refuses to go to church until the bell comes to fetch him.
The Austrian baritone Florian Boesch and the pianist Roger Vignoles offer a gnarlier, angrier "Edward" and a jauntier "Wandelnde Glocke" on "Loewe: Songs and Ballads," another Hyperion disc. These artists have also made room for purely lyrical numbers. Unlike some of his peers Mr. Boesch makes no fetish of honeyed tone, and a hint of gruffness bespeaks a lion's heart even where the mood is gentlest, as in the limpid meditation of a star gazer from the second part of Goethe's "Faust."
The third of Loewe's current champions is the Dutch baritone Henk Neven, with Hans Eijsackers at the keyboard. Their CD "Auf Einer Burg," ("At a Castle"), from Onyx, couples Schumann's nostalgic "Liederkreis" (Op. 39) with nine assorted Loewe pieces, seven of them also on Mr. Boesch's program. A highlight for both baritones is "Tom der Reimer," the sunny tale of a minstrel's encounter with a coquette who is not, as he first supposes, the queen of heaven. No, she tells him, she is the fairy queen. One kiss, and he must serve her for seven years. He does so with pleasure, and off they ride to the tinkle of bells braided into the mane of her steed.
ccording to the German-language Web site of the International Carl Loewe Society, headquartered in Loewe's native Löbejün in Saxony, near Halle and Leipzig, a collection of Loewe recordings recently acquired by Ian R. Lilburn, of London, comprises some 1,000 items in obsolete formats as well as countless LPs, cassettes and air checks, and more than 200 CDs. A search at the iTunes store turns up 101 albums. (Some are misclassified. Karita Mattila's Loewe track turns out to be "I Could Have Danced All Night." Wrong Loewe.) Yet few interpreters, current or historic, ever seem to look beyond one or two dozen standards.
Just about everyone who sings Loewe sings "Tom der Reimer." That was the first Loewe song I ever heard, performed by the American mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian, of all people: muse to composers like John Cage, Igor Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze and Luciano Berio, her husband of 16 years. Loewe came into her cross hairs when she sent up the musical tastes and manners of the belle époque. Recorded live, her entire soirée was a gem of performance art.
At the threshold of his great career the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff recorded a winning Loewe CD featuring "Tom der Reimer," "Edward," "Die Wandelnde Glocke" and the infectious "Prinz Eugen," a romantic vignette from the Turkish-Austrian war of the early 18th century. But his song list varied scarcely, if at all, from those of predecessors like Hermann Prey, Eberhard Wächter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Kurt Moll.
ith "Der Fischer" the Dutch soprano Elly Ameling offered, in her magnificent anthology "German Romantic Songs, a glimpse of rarer Loewe. (To the best of my knowledge neither this nor the Berberian album ever made its way from vinyl to CD.) It's the old story: a water spirit lures a fisherman to his death in the waves. The poem is by Goethe, and Schubert set it too, in his simplest folk style. Loewe makes the verses surge and swirl, casting spells even in lines that read like throwaways. On a broader canvas there was the German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender's rendition of the rarely performed "Frauenliebe," based on the Chamisso cycle that Robert Schumann set four years later as "Frauenliebe und-leben."
The youngest of 12 children of a schoolteacher and cantor, Loewe showed promised in several disciplines. From his mid-20s he made a comfortable career as music director of the Prussian city Stettin, which is today Szczecin in Poland. As such he conducted the premiere of the 16-year-old Felix Mendelssohn's bewitching "Midsummer Night's Dream" Overture in 1827, but the demands of his post cannot have been crushing. He also served as organist at the cathedral and taught music, Greek, history and natural sciences at the local high school.
Grove Music Online offers the clinical assessment that Loewe was an essentially conservative figure, untouched by the innovations of radical, slightly younger contemporaries like Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. Happily, such considerations have not swayed the pianist and record producer Cord Garben, the most committed keeper of Loewe's flame in our time or any time. Mr. Garben's comprehensive 21-CD set of Loewe's songs and ballads on the cpo label first appeared in single volumes from 1994 to 2003. (For reasons hard to fathom none of the material is available on iTunes.)
Mr. Garben's set — based on the complete songs of Loewe in the 17-volume edition of 1907 — presents an inexhaustible store of literary curiosities preserved in music of colorful freshness and invention. The titles — "The Highwayman," "The God and the Temple Dancer," "Goethe in Old Age," "Death and Mrs. Death," "The June Bug in Love" — conjure up a never-ending succession of intriguing surprises. (Only children's songs, school songs and rah-rah patriotic songs written for the Hohenzollern rulers in their post-Napoleonic glory are omitted.) As a dramatist in music, Loewe endows characters with voices that are sometimes homespun in their sincerity, sometimes unabashedly flamboyant. His scenes of pageantry and celebration quicken the pulse. The seas he paints boil or brood like Turner's.
A-B comparisons with Schubert seldom benefit a song composer, but in Loewe's case the bull must be taken by the horns. A textbook example is "Erlkönig," Goethe's horror story of a father and son on horseback, galloping through the night pursued by the elf king, who tempts the resisting boy with pleasures, then threatens him with violence. The boy's panic panics his father too, and he arrives at his destination to realize that the child has died in his arms.
chubert's treatment is one of the universally acknowledged glories of German song. Yet Loewe's version has had its champions. Richard Taruskin argues in his magisterial "Oxford History of Western Music" that Loewe "clearly 'believes' more in the supernatural content of the poem than Schubert did," which may or may not be an argument in Loewe's favor. According to Mr. Garben, some other big guns come down unambiguously on Loewe's side.
"Fischer-Dieskau said that the way Loewe portrays the characters is much truer to the poem," Mr. Garben said. "He also said the Schubert is only so famous because of its impossible piano part, which Maurizio Pollini said is unplayable."
Whatever the case Loewe's songs are a continent that singers have barely touched. Do the recent albums by Mr. Boesch, Mr. Finley and Mr. Neven portend a new age of discovery? Mr. Garben does not think so.
"It won't happen," he said, sounding philosophical, even cheerful. "Young people don't have the necessary background in Romanticism. When the older generation dies out, it will be over."
Maybe so. But maybe not. In opera the resurrections of Handel and Rossini over the last half century suggest different possibilities. Mr. Boesch, for one, is sanguine.
"People will always love stories if they are told honestly and the singer believes in them," he said recently by e-mail from Vienna. "I of course knew the famous ballads and wanted to record them right away. But I'm just getting started with Loewe. I'm positive that there is more that is worth hearing. His best songs are as good as his best ballads. Where the poetry is good, he is good too. Where the poetry is mediocre, he's not so brilliant. If you have enough to say, people will listen. Ask me about him again in 10 years."