Carl Michael Bellman was a towering presence in 18th century Swedish poetry. Many a scholar has maintained that if he had written in French, German or English he would have been a central author, irrespective of nationality. It should be noted, though, that his poetry was written to be sung, rather than just read, and his way of weaving words and music together was distinctive. Primarily he wrote his songs and epistles to be performed by himself. There are several written testimonies that he was a masterly performer, expressive and able to imitate sundry instruments. Conscientious research has revealed that few of his songs are original compositions; there is plenty of evidence that he borrowed melodies from instrumental works (Roman, Naumann’s Gustaf Wasa) and French opera-comique. There is even a quotation from the opening chorus in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. But, great artist that he was, he changed, reworked and adjusted the melodic material to fit his texts. We encounter a very conscious artist in these songs and epistles.
Martin Best, who made himself a reputation, not least in the medieval troubadour repertoire, was a frequent visitor to Sweden from the 1970s and became a household name in the country for many years. With his flexible voice and his masterly treatment of the guitar and the cyster, the latter a lute-like instrument that Bellman also played, he is a worthy transmitter of the Bellman tradition.
Martin Best is no doubt closer to what Bellman must have sounded like - though not theatrical enough if the ear-witnesses’ are to be relied on. He is fresh and lively, his diction is excellent and his rhythmic acuity is striking. That he is a masterly instrumentalist, whether on the guitar or on the cyster, is beyond doubt. One of the best readings here is the Cradle song (tr. 7), which is not included in either of the two published volumes. It is beautifully and sensitively performed a cappella – a true lullaby sung spontaneously to his little son.
The more idyllic songs seem best suited to Martin Best’s treatment. The aforementioned Song 64 about Haga is sung fluently with forward movement and tracks 10 – 12 are all beautifully done. Maybe the concluding elegy Never an Iris is the most beautiful of them all.
It has to be said that, even though Bellman’s highly personal poetry can never be transmitted to another language without losing some of its unique flavour, Paul Britten Austin and Tom Fletcher have done an outstanding job in making these marvellous texts available to non-Swedish listeners. Martin Best is the right person to make them come alive.
The recording is truthful, the artist in the traditional Nimbus manner, and even though I would ideally wish the texts to have been printed in the booklet – as it is we get some short summaries and in some cases musicological or historical references – Martin Best’s enunciation is so clear that most listeners will be able to catch the essence of the contents. It seems unlikely at the moment that we will be offered another issue with this repertoire, and though I naturally am biased towards this highly individual poet I would emphatically advise readers not yet familiar with Bellman to try him out. Martin Best is certainly as strong an advocate for him as it is possible to find.
Göran Forsling, Musicweb-international.com