A singer who combines the necessary virtues for George Crumb and Purcell, the interest to sing Strauss (Richard) bonbons and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, who leaves an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon on her own account (to move to the classical indie-label Onyx), a soprano who sings Bach Passions as naturally as Schumann Lieder, Mahler Symphonies, and Mozart Operas – and all at the very highest level – is something truly remarkable. Christine Schäfer is that soprano, and she is truly remarkable.
Schubert, Die Winterreise, C.Schäfer
(released August 08, 2006)
Her Cherubino in Harnoncourt’s Le Nozze di Figaro from the 2006 Salzburg Festival manages to out-act (and out-sing, anyway) Anna Netrebko and Dorothea Röschmann. Hers is one of the most bafflingly successful performances of that role I have seen – disturbingly true to life, whatever that life in Mozart’s operas might have been like. (The DVD was one of my favorite things in 2007 -- Charles's review has some embedded video excerpts.)
Daring and typical was her release of Die Winterreise on Onyx in 2006. I am solidly in the camp of those who prefer a bass or baritone in this song cycle over a tenor, much less a soprano. I have respect for the better recordings of Die Winterreise for female voice, but neither Lotte Lehmann’s, nor Brigitte Fassbaender’s, nor Natalie Stutzmann’s – to name only the truly successful ones – convince me, or appeal to me much.
Mozart, Requiem, Harnoncourt
Christine Schäfer’s perhaps least of all – the icy clarity and monochromatic delivery somewhere above these musical fields of snow and despair was listened to once and then dismissed on my part. But in a recent conversation with the owner of Vienna’s oldest record shop and youngest record label – Gramola – the issue of Die Winterreise came up and Mr. Winter not only volunteered Schäfer’s as his favorite modern recording (the appropriately gruesome, terrifically terrifying and utterly Viennese Julius Patzak being his personal favorite overall), he also gave his reasoning. Since I cannot resist any passionate, well formulated opinion - much less argument - about any music, I resolved to scratch my opinion of Schäfer’s Winterreise and re-form it upon a new hearing.
The chance presented itself soon: Concerto Winderstein organized a recital with her singing Die Winterreise at the Herkulessaal in
Eric Schneider was at the piano, and in a simple dress of contrasting penitents’ black, Schäfer began “Gute Nacht” unsettlingly fast. As her voice meet with my ingrained expectations, almost every new entrance took getting used to – but Schäfer also got me used to it every time, within seconds. At the line “The Girl, she spoke of Love”, “love” was touched most tenderly first, then 'well considered' the second time around. The Moon’s shadow cast its light very “dolce”. Instead of contained (or outright) anger in: “Love does love to wander / For God has made her so – / From one person to the next / Dear Darling, well, Good Night!”, she sang it with emotional moderation, to an eerily calm ritardando. After the protagonists writes his farewell on his would-be sweetheart’s door, Schneider had the piano walk away from the song in stubborn steps through the snow.
That this was – as expected – going to be nuanced reading was noticeable right away. But the fast tempos, lack of obvious anger, and very subtle touches of crescendos, ritardandos, or an occasional fermata did not seem enough to make this as moving as I had hoped. Moments of delight did not seem to make up for a grander total, even though there were many. But for about half the recital, they struck me all as parts that were more than the sum of the whole. But then came Der Wegweiser.
Continue reading this review.