Werner Güra

Haydn: Scottish Airs

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Late in life, Franz Joseph Haydn made about 125 arrangements of Scottish songs for the publisher George Thomson. Thomson's project was an ongoing one in the 1790s and early 1800s; after a volume with arrangements by Scots composers sold well, Thomson was apparently inspired to commission more of the same from "name" composers like Haydn and later Beethoven, Hummel, and Weber. The results were more than purely financially motivated. The aged Haydn proclaimed in one of his submissions to Thomson that he was proud of his work, and Beethoven seems to have gone on to set a variety of national popular songs (the term "folk songs" is anachronistic here, for the materials were contemporary) without any commission at all. Haydn's are pretty regular in structure, with a strophic setting for a trio of piano, violin, and cello, and an instrumental introduction that neatly sets the mood and the pitch world for the song. It's easy to see why Haydn became intrigued by the project: within the severe constraints of the form, he introduces quite a variety of expressive touches, and he was obviously well coached on the meaning of the texts (or absorbed a great deal of English in the course of his travels to London), even those in Scots dialect. There is little to tell the listener that German tenor Werner Güra is anything other than a native English speaker, and he even does well with the Scots pieces (everything is translated into German and French in the CD booklet, and the Scots texts are heavily footnoted for English speakers). The interpretations by Güra and his trio of instrumental collaborators (keyboardist Christoph Berner plays a fortepiano) are probably ideal for these little pieces. Güra keeps the music to its proper small scale, and he gives the instrumentalists room to move and avoids the mechanical quality of earlier readings. There's nothing revelatory here, but for those interested in the development of Scottish song, or in hearing some of the last notes Haydn set to paper, this is a strong pick.

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