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The Art of the Lied: Schubert & Wolf Songs

available at Amazon
F.Schubert, An den Mond,
D.Henschel / H.Deutsch
HMU 901822

Every label usually has an ‘in-house’ tenor or baritone Lieder singer. While EMI fares best with its tenor Ian Bostridge, baritones dominate the Lieder domain of some of the other major labels. Decca brings Matthias Goerne into the fray; for Deutsche Gramophone the estimable and real baritone Thomas Quasthoff has stepped into the oversized footsteps of the tenor-baritone Fischer-Dieskau. For RCA, it is Christian Gerhaher who sings in the lower register. Harmonia Mundi luxuriates in having both a tenor and a baritone of the highest caliber to unleash on Schubert, Beethoven, Wolf & Co. Wolfgang Güra is far and away my favorite tenor these days; a voice that is completely natural and unstrained, round and comforting. He brings all the tonal qualities of a baritone to the register of a tenor. The baritone is Dietrich Henschel. His voice can occasionally, even by experienced ears, be mistaken for Fischer-Dieskau’s. It hasn’t a very dark timber, and he is an intelligent singer who defines the text with nuance. He is, however, not quite as obsessed with detail and every expressive nook and cranny as Bostridge can sometimes be (and when so, is at his least pleasurable). I’ve enjoyed Henschel’s Beethoven disc, even if Adelaïde (one of the most beautiful songs ever composed) in particular is a realm that is still occupied by Fischer-Dieskau’s timeless interpretation. And An die ferne Geliebte was given a recent and very fine outing courtesy of Goerne and Brendel.

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H.Wolf, Mörike Lieder,
W.Güra / J.Schultsz
HMU 901882

It is his year-old Schubert recital, An den Mond (To the Moon), that particularly enchants me. From the opening Der Wanderer and den Mond, Henschel sets an example of fine, clear singing with perfect diction, pronunciation, absence of theatrics and operatic touches that so often wreak havoc with Lieder, Mélodies, and Art Song. One song after another is a highlight -– an excellent Sehnsucht following on the first song’s heels, the felt Im Freien after that; 19 delights in all, dedicated to nature, night, restlessness, and solitude. As always with Schubert, the quality of the poem underlying his songs has little to do with the quality of the result: indeed, the often modest poetic achievements of his roommate Johann Mayrhoffer end up being songs of a quality on par with or exceeding those that are set to Goethe or Schlegel. Lebensmut is strong and forceful and virtually forces you to (try to) sing along. When you think it could not get better, Der Schiffer tops all those efforts once more. Listen to the piano whipping the waves mercilessly beneath Henschel's supple voice! Or thundering through what turns out to be one of Schubert's most gripping songs, Totengräbers Heimwehe. Speaking of the piano, Helmut Deutsch shines in the pre- and postludes - partakes as much as Henschel in the interpretation of songs. Even the slower tempi of his are marbled with a pulse that never allows any of the music to sag or drag.

Werner Güra has received highest praise when he recorded the nearly perfect Lieder CD Schöne Wiege Meiner Leiden, a disc where the selection of the songs (Brahms and Mr. & Ms. Schumann), the presentation (including letters between the three composers), and the execution (with a perfect contribution by pianist Christoph Berner on a superbly balanced 1877 Friedrich Ehrbar piano) answered to about everything one could wish such a CD to bring with it. His latest release is dedicated to 23 of Wolf’s Mörike songs. Wolf’s songs demand that the listener be into the art of the Lied in the first place (at least more so than the “Schöne Wiege…” selection) to fully enjoy it, but those who are will find Güra at the top of his game, again. Never harsh, never shrill, and never strained he manages the (difficult enough) sine qua non of such a recital. But beyond the absence of the negative, he adds a bewildering array of positively positive elements into his traversal of beauties such as the touching heartache of Gebet, the surging, threatened and gloomy Denk’ es, o Seele, the wild and stormy Der Feuerreiter, and the humorous Storchenbotschaft (Stork-tidings: “I guess you’ve paid my girl a visit? […] / But wait! Why have two of you come? / It can’t, I hope, be a case of twins? / –At that the storks burst out chattering / They nod and curtsey and fly away”).

Jan Schultsz offers sensitive and musical accompaniment, always underscoring the lyricism of Wolf, never neglecting the bubbles and the nimble moments.

No harm in celebrating the 80th birthday of the greatest Lieder singer there ever was; Fischer-Dieskau, whether we consider his legacy impressive but controversial or simply unequalled. But better yet is it to know that between the singers mentioned above and the two singers on the marvelous discs discussed here, we are not bound to run out of future greatness in that field of classical music.

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