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Simon Keenlyside's Dichterliebe

available at Amazon
Brahms, Lieder / Schumann, Dichterliebe, S. Keenlyside,
M. Martineau

(released on November 3, 2009)
Sony 88697-56689-2 | 76'40"

Online scores:
Brahms, Lieder | Schumann, Dichterliebe
Baritone Simon Keenlyside has given many excellent performances as an opera singer: we have written about his Tales of Opera disc, as well as his putting a mark on parts like Prospero in The Tempest, the Count in the René Jacobs Nozze di Figaro, and the title role in Wozzeck. (I need to revisit his DVD of Thomas's Hamlet, with Natalie Dessay, in preparation for the upcoming Washington National Opera production of the opera, with Diana Damrau.) Before he became an opera star, however, Keenlyside quietly made a name for himself as a Lieder singer, contributing to the series of Schubert and Schumann Lieder on the Hyperion label, for example, and winning prizes like the Walter Gruner International Lieder competition (1987) and the Elly Ameling competition (1990).

Such a promising past set me up for disappointment listening to Keenlyside's new Lieder disc. It is not Keenlyside's voice that is the problem, although there is an agitated edge to the tone that is less than natural, and by comparison to the best Lieder singers, even those who are not native German speakers, Keenlyside's pronunciation has more than a few anglicisms. It is partly that the sound capture is a little tinny, as if there is some distance between listener and singer especially (noted especially while comparing various recordings with good headphones). Vocal Arts Society has not brought Keenlyside to Washington yet (although it most likely will in the next few seasons), so it is difficult to say how these impressions would be altered in live performance, but on disc it is just not a level of performance that requires collecting and listening.

Interpretatively, there are quirks, too, lengthenings of phrase, adjustments for big breaths in awkward places, missed assessments of tempo. The set of Brahms songs is the best part of the selection, songs that seem to fit Keenlyside's voice and temperament quite well. His rendition of Schumann's cycle Dichterliebe, however, does not make the cut into the ranks of contenders for this work, available in somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred commercial recordings. Dichterliebe is often thought to be the province of baritones, although following the belated premiere of the cycle -- by baritone Julius Stockhausen and Johannes Brahms at the piano -- singers of that voice type often transpose the original range of some of the songs.

Schumann did dedicate the work to the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, after all: did he intend the set for a soprano voice? Christine Schäfer has recorded it with pianist Natascha Osterkorn, in a DVD version of short films along with Pierrot Lunaire. In fact, my two favorite recordings of Dichterliebe are in the original key and sung by tenors: Fritz Wunderlich (with Hubert Giesen) and Ian Bostridge (with Julius Drake -- a disc that includes the four other songs Schumann originally composed for the cycle and later cut when he switched publishers). Baritones can certainly make the cycle work, with or without transpositions or fudging some of the high notes, and with this cycle more than any other the pianist is perhaps more important than the singer. That is why pianists who are more known as accompanists -- like Drake, and like Keenlyside's partner, Malcolm Martineau, both excellent players but more likely to be compliant than daring -- can often be outdone by pianists known primarily as soloists: that adds marks for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (the best of his various recordings of the cycle, not least because it is with Alfred Brendel), Matthias Goerne (with Vladimir Ashkenazy), and Christian Gerhaher (with the mercurial Gerold Huber).

1 comment:

David Boxwell said...

I like Gerald Finley's Oct 2007 recording of "Dichterliebe" with Julius Drake on Hyperion (CDA 67676), with 4 additional songs conceived for the cycle, but not "making the final cut."