It's instructive that of the three recordings of Haydn songs or arias under consideration here, the most successful is a reissue of a recital from 1980.
Brilliant Classics seems to be sweeping the board at the moment with reissues of artistically remarkable and expensive recordings from the back catalogues of major labels such as Deutsche Grammophon, Philips and Decca, which they're making available in new packaging for £9 or so in many cases. The complete Haydn song recordings made by Elly Ameling in 1980 were completely unknown to me before I came across this reissue, but it turns out to consist of a superb set of performances, and as we've recently noted in reviews of the composer's operas La fedelta premiata and L'anima del filosofo, the music is less well known than its quality deserves.
Haydn published twenty-four songs in 1781 and 1784 in response to the demand for Lieder to perform in domestic situations, and in 1794-5 wrote two sets of English canzonettas. Aside from these, Richard Wigmore asserts in his liner notes for the set that the two songs Haydn published separately are his finest: 'The Spirit's Song' and 'O Tuneful Voice', which 'combines a fervent bel canto line with a glorious freedom of modulation.
These forty-eight songs are given such winning performances by Ameling and her accompanist Jörg Demus that it's difficult to have favourites. There seem to be no linguistic difficulties, with both the English and German pronounced idiomatically and clearly, and the composer's lightness of touch is observed by both singer and instrumentalist with consummate skill. As noted, these pieces were written for the salon rather than the large concert halls of today, and although Ameling's tone is creamy, she never tries to make the pieces grander than they are, instead focussing on the clever details on the music's busy surface. Demus' performance on the fortepiano is along the same lines, contained in size but not expression, and the availability of this 3CD set for about £12 is surely irresistible.
By contrast, it's amazing what a mismatch of material to singer has occurred with Thomas Quasthoff's new disc. It's wonderful that he's chosen to bring Haydn's operatic repertoire to wider attention with a recital of Italian arias, from outstanding pieces such as Orlando Paladino, Armida, La vera costanza and L'isola disabitata, and the insertion arias for Bianchi's Il disertore and Salieri's La scuola de' gelosi are brilliant novelties. The period-instrument accompaniment from the Freiburger Barockorchester under Gottfried von der Goltz is a huge asset, too. But the truth is that Quasthoff's instrument is not well placed to deal with the high tessitura of many of these arias, leading to intonation problems; his temperament is ill-suited to the comedy of most of the arias; and the duet he sings with the delectable Genia Kühmeier demonstrates how much more stylish these pieces can be in the right hands. It's an imaginative programme and Quasthoff does have his moments, but overall the disc is far less successful than Anna Bonitatibus' recent Haydn opera arias disc, for instance.
The much more simply conceived new Haydn recording ('Life is a Dream') from the impeccable Michael Storrs Music label is also far more satisfying. I can't deny that Peter Lodahl's voice is not at all to my taste in this music – he doesn't have the depth of tone or the control to make one forget the technical aspects and concentrate on the artistic ones – but Anna Leese's performances of a splendid selection of Haydn's song repertoire are outstanding. In 'The Wanderer', 'Der Gleichsinn' and 'Fidelity', she sings with a flair and brilliance that matches the great interpreters of the past. The nineteen tracks are well chosen and show both Haydn's frivolity and his more reflective side, and with excellent accompaniment from Alisdair Hogarth and crystal-clear sound, life is indeed a dream, as the CD title suggests. Available at mid-price, highly recommended.
CD Review: Anna Bonitatibus sings Haydn Opera Arias (deutsche harmonia mundi)
CD Review: Simon Rattle conducts Haydn's Symphonies 88-92 (EMI)
CD Review: William Christie conducts The Creation (Virgin)
Opera Review: Haydn's La fedelta delusa at the Royal Academy of Music