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Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden

available at AmazonR. & C.Schumann, J.Brahms, Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden,
Werner Güra, Christoph Berner
Harmonia Mundi 901842, 2004

available at AmazonR. & C.Schumann, J.Brahms, Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden,
Werner Güra, Christoph Berner
Harmonia Mundi 501842, 2014

Three very different approaches to the Lied from very different singers came out in the last months: all-Schumann discs with baritones Christian Gerhaher (RCA) and Matthias Goerne (Decca) as well as the concept album Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden with tenor Werner Güra and pianist Christoph Berner, containing songs by Johannes Brahms (ten of the Volkslieder), seven songs by Clara Schumann, and her husband's Liederkreis, op. 24.

The close relation between the three composers and their Lieder output is emphasized by letters between the three, included in the gorgeous booklet. Starting with Brahms, the selection includes the most beautiful, charming, slightly melancholic songs of the collection of German folksongs. The Clara Schumann songs are based on poems by Rückert, Rillett, and Heine, and the Liederkreis, too, represents the finest of the sweetest of the German Lied.

Da unten im Tale is easily my favorite Brahms song. Neither his deepest, nor his most intricate, nor likely his best song, but unsurpassed in simple beauty and earthy intelligence stemming from the combination of melody and text (in dialect) that breathes the relaxed, subtle wisdom of ages; gentle, but disarmingly realistic. If all you know of Brahms songs are his Vier ernste Gesänge, this will be the cure you needed to love, rather than admire, Brahms's songs.

Werner Güra, meanwhile, offers one of the most pleasing tenors in songs that I have heard in a long time. Admittedly, I am (positively) biased towards lower registers, and perhaps it is the low center of gravity of his voice (not a low range, mind you) that gives his notes, even the high ones, a well-rounded quality. There isn't the clarity of a young Peter Schreier or Ian Bostridge, but audible comfort, an armchair of a voice, miles away from shrill or high-strung. Meanwhile, Christoph Berner supplies felt and sensitive playing on an 1877 Friedrich Ehrbar piano (which takes care of the balance automatically, it seems), as well the booklet notes which are, as well as the letters, provided in English, German, and French.

Clara Schumann's Warum willst Du and're fragen? shows that she could, in Romantic songs, match her husband step for step in beauty and effect. The Liederkreis provides most satisfactory listening; maturity and romantic yearning in equal measure. Pronunciation is not an issue for Güra; diction impeccable. The interpretation is closer to the lyrical Bostridge (EMI) than the declamatory, sober Fischer-Dieskau (EMI).

As the booklet notes, "this CD relates an astonishing musical conversation between the three [Brahms and the Schumanns] of them. Here in songs and letters is a musical and literary journey into Romanticism at its most exalted." True enough; and a very successful concept album for once. While booklet notes, no matter how extensive, cannot pretend to give a detailed picture of the correspondence between the three and is more a whetting of the appetite than it is a full fledged "literary journey," it is splendid for what it is. As an introduction to German art song, I could not think of a better CD in existence. But even to veterans of the Lied it is worth a listen for both the luscious selection of songs and the luscious tenor of Mr. Güra. An hour of pure enjoyment—highly recommended!