BRAHMS: Lieder -- Nachtigallen schwingen; Verzagen; Lerchengesang;
Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen; Über die Heide; Wie rafft' ich mich auf in der
Nacht; An die Äolsharfe; Auf die Kirchhofe; Von ewiger Liebe; An die
Nachtigall; O kühler Wald; Es schauen die Blumen; Nachtigall; Feldeinsamkeit;
Nachtwandler; Abenddämmerung. SCHUMANN: Dichterliebe, op. 48.
Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano).
Sony 756689(F) (DDD) TT: 76:40.
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A master singer sings the masters. Brahms and Mahler are my two favorite
composers of German Lieder. I don't say they are the best, because that
implies Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, and Wolf somehow fail to come up
to the mark. My ego would have to stretch beyond Pluto (planet or otherwise)
to believe it. I do know I like more of their songs than those of the
and that's it. Despite the two composers' mutual esteem, I find them
quite different in their songwriting -- a difference that comes down
characteristic writing for the piano. Brahms provides a solid foundation
for the singer. Schumann tends to treat the soloist and the various voices
of the piano as more or less equal partners in the texture. I suspect
a composer would discover orchestrating the songs of Schumann easier
those of Brahms.
Brahms largely avoided the song cycle. I can think of only two: Die
Magelone and Vier ernste Gesänge. He preferred instead to publish
loose collections. This agreed with the preferences of the time. Not even
Winterreise was immune from having singers giving excerpts until late in
the century. Schumann, on the other hand, was fascinated by the song cycle
as a form. We have, to name just a few, Myrthen, Liederkreis, Frauenliebe
und -leben, Minnelieder, and, my favorite, Dichterliebe.
Dichterliebe sets wonderful poems by Heinrich Heine. It's a true cycle
- one speaker, one situation (the familiar one of the poet getting dumped
by his beloved). Schumann emphasized the work's unity by taking pains
with the harmonic transitions from one song to the next. It's a view
the Romantic, rather than the proto-Modern poet. Schubert's Schwanengesang gives us more of the latter. Nevertheless the songs themselves are gorgeous
and include several of the biggest hits in the Lieder repertory.
The Brahms songs are, of course, a grab-bag, but Keenlyside picks with
great intelligence, both musically and thematically. For example, there
are no less than three odes to the nightingale. The texts provide a cornucopia
of Romantic imagery -- the dark forest, the storm, the solitary wanderer
in the night, the babbling brook, the songs of birds, the Aeolian harp.
Brahms chose his texts with less discrimination than Schumann did, but
it almost never seems to matter. The songs routinely triumph over the
words, mainly because the music so spectacularly gives back the mood
of the poetry.
The performance bowled me over. This is great Lieder singing. I consider
Keenlyside up there with Fischer-Dieskau and Hotter. His light baritone
isn't as immediately gorgeous as, say, Terfel's, but he sings with greater
flexibility, suavity, and downright musical intelligence. The poems seem
to have become part of him. It's not like he's reciting, but speaking,
almost with the freedom of actual speech. Occasionally, he flubs a word,
but it's always a grammatical flub, such as a native German speaker might
make. Furthermore, he's a wonderful actor, and I don't just mean for
a singer. If he hadn't a beautiful voice, he probably could have made
on stage or in films. His Don Giovanni, for instance, is the best I've
seen. This comes over into his Lieder singing. Almost every one of these
pieces gets transformed into a mini-drama.
A great singer depends on a great Lieder pianist, and Malcolm
Martineau certainly qualifies. He and Keenlyside perform as with one
mind. He matches
the singer subtlety for subtlety and overall leaves you with the impression
that the two enjoy an equal partnership. They especially impressed me
in the Schumann by the way they hurried transitions from one song to
thus emphasizing the cycle's unity.
This has already become a favorite disc.
S.G.S. (September 2010)