Bellman Songs

Carl Michael Bellman is the supreme writer of sung poetry. In his songs he creates on the one hand a picture of lightness and grace and on the other a scenario of despair, drunkenness and cynicism. It is a combination which even today holds his fellow Scandinavians in thrall from the cradle up. A Bellman concert is still, nearly 200 years after his death, sure-fire box office; moreover, although his images are dense, his verses thick with classical allusion, his choice of melodies refined, and the speed of his thought bewildering, his appeal is universal; everybody in Scandinavia knows and loves Bellman.



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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.

Musicweb-international - Classical Review


Martin Best, who has been called the 'first great contemporary troubadour', recorded a series of CDs for Nimbus in the 1980s and 1990s, which I am now in the process of reviewing. The Swedish composer Carl Michael Bellman is featured on the front of this booklet, singing to his guitar. On the back, sitting cross-legged, is Martin Best, almost his doppelganger! But I wonder if Bellman sang with as much character as Best did.

The other recordings which Best made at that time were mostly with his own ensemble. Those were songs and dances by composers of the 12-14th centuries, incorporating many shadowy figures from those times. This disc is different. It is devoted to just one composer: fourteen songs by the little-known (at least in the UK) Stockholm-born Carl Michael Bellman. The man, however, is still popular throughout Scandinavia. Best tells us in his brief but fascinating notes that Bellman sells out concerts there; at least that seemed to be the case thirty years ago. Children also learn the tunes. And what excellent and memorable melodies they are. They stick in the memory largely due to the strophic and therefore repetitive nature of the songs but also because of the simple but catchy rhythms. It is all a 'swizz', however, as most of the tunes were either well known at the time or were from popular operas. For example, Epistle 2, An Elegy, uses a melody from Grétry's opera L'amitie a l'épreuve, and there is another from Handel's Acis and Galetea. That was Bellman's strength. Indeed, one can think of him as a Swedish John Gay.

…Bellman's favoured story lines include much drinking, sex, hunting and outdoor activities, and can be a bit risqué but also very tender. Martin Best wonderfully captures these contrasting moods with sometime strength and sometime gentleness and pathos.

Like all good troubadours, Best accompanies himself beautifully on guitar but also on an instrument you may unfamiliar with, the cyster, a sort of small guitar like an old cittern…

Music Web International – Classical Review

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