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.

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 others and that's it. Despite the two composers' mutual esteem, I find them quite different in their songwriting -- a difference that comes down to their 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 than those of Brahms.

Brahms largely avoided the song cycle. I can think of only two: Die schöne 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 of Heine 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 a career 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 the next, thus emphasizing the cycle's unity.

This has already become a favorite disc.

S.G.S. (September 2010)