BRAHMS: 8 Songs, op. 57. SCHUMANN: 4 Lieder from Goethe's Wilhelm
Meisters Lehrjahre, op. 98a. Frauenliebe und -leben, op. 42. DEBUSSY: Fêtes
galantes -- Fantoches. HANDEL: Theodora -- Angels, ever bright and fair.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo); Julius Drake (piano).
Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0024 (F) (DDD) TT: 69:31
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More recordings of the beloved singer, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson,
continue to dribble out -- necessarily live recordings, of course. The
recital comes from London's Wigmore Hall, 1999. I think it a bit unusual,
since I associate Lieberson with the Baroque, Mozart, and the contemporary.
This program concentrates on the hard-core German Romantic repertoire.
Lieberson's voice belongs to her alone. She hasn't the disconcerting wobble
that afflicts so many mezzos. Unlike, say, Janet Baker, she also hasn't
the Devonshire cream in her sound. It's an extremely clear tone, even bright,
which in a lesser singer can be unforgiving if pitch isn't absolutely dead
on. Lieberson approaches these songs on her own path as well, I suspect
because of her immersion in the Baroque early on. In general, her interpretations
-- unlike, say, Schwarzkopf's or Ludwig's -- are less "stagey," although
no less dramatic. It's the difference between Olivier and Eastwood. Lieberson
pitches her readings lower, more "naturally." She rarely underlines
anything. She speaks not from the stage, but across the table.
Hard as it may be for some to credit, I find Brahms neglected as a songwriter.
Compared to those of Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, and Mahler, you don't
often come across his songs on recitals, and when you do, they are very
often the same small set of songs. Although trashy texts often attracted
him, that shouldn't pose much of a problem to monolingual Anglophone audiences,
and his music is good enough to make you forget the poetic worth of the
lyrics. His op. 57 sets poems by Georg Friedrich Daumer (used for the Liebeslieder
Waltzes as well), also a philosopher and translator of the Persian poet
Hafiz. Indeed, Daumer was known as the German Hafiz (but only in Germany;
Iranians probably have other opinions). Back in Brahms's day, people considered
this hot stuff, and several of Brahms's friends warned him off these poems.
In the age of the Stones and Courtney Love, it's all rather tame, of course.
In terms of Brahms's idiom, nevertheless, these songs insinuate themselves
like a cat between your feet -- very sensuous. I find Lieberson a little
too understated. I want somebody close to (but not over) the top, on the
grounds that the passionate tempests of the verse drew Brahms in the first
On the other hand, Lieberson scores in both of the Schumanns. The composer's
Wilhelm Meister songs includes a total of, I believe, eight or
nine, and he also turned to the work for his large-scale Requiem für
op. 98b, from the same year. These songs blur the distinction between Lied and dramatic scena. Lieberson sings those poems associated with the character
Mignon. "Kennst du das Land" (do you know the land?) comes closest
to the traditional Lied, nearly strophic, with surprising harmonic changes
at the refrain. "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" (only he who knows
longing) sets the Goethe poem straight once through and then broken phrases
from it here and there for dramatic effect. Mignon, a none-too-stable girl,
essentially breaks down as she recalls her native land, Italy, from which
she was abducted. The last two songs, "Heiss mich nicht reden" (don't
bid me speak) and "So lasst mich sheinen" (let me appear), tighten
an already-high string. Lieberson in a sense has had practice doing these
kinds of songs in, for example, the "mad" heroines of baroque
opera -- Dejanira from Handel's Hercules, to name one. Compared to other
singers I've heard, Lieberson foregoes scenery chewing for something lower-key,
subtler, and evoking several emotions at once. This is superior Lieder singing.
I've always harbored ambiguous feelings toward Schumann's Frauenliebe
und -leben cycle. On the one hand, the poems, by Adelbert von Chamisso, portraying
a woman's love of her husband, reek of the Victorian "angel in the
house," an icon that, quite frankly, pretty much creeps me out. The
woman worships her husband with an extravagance that makes me suspect she's
secretly poisoning his brandy and cigars. If my wife started behaving that
way toward me, I'd start looking for where she hid the hatchet. On the
other hand, the music ranks among the most gorgeous Schumann ever wrote.
It comes from his annus mirabilis of song-writing, 1840, the year he finally
married Clara and during which he wrote an amazing 130 really tremendous
songs. Frauenliebe und -leben (woman's love and life) tells a little story
of a courtship, marriage, children, and death of a spouse. Unlike Brahms
or Schubert, Schumann, a prose master as well as a composer, was extremely
sensitive to the quality of the texts he set, although I find him guilty
of a major lapse here. Indeed, he once wrote that a great song can't happen
without a great text, an axiom which fortunately these songs disprove.
As a songwriter, Schumann builds on Schubert's innovations. The movement
of the poem very largely determines the musical structure, often against
the stanza structure. Schumann has very few strictly strophic songs. Also
the piano acts more independently than in Schubert. One can hear it taking
up vocal snatches in "Er, der Herrlichste von allen" (he the
most magnificent of all) and especially in "Helft mir, O Schwestern" (help
me, o sisters), with its Dvorák-like arpeggios. The most famous
instance in this cycle occurs in the final song, "Nun hast du mir
den ersten Schmerz getan" (now you have done me your first injury),
where the husband has died and the woman decides to wait for her own death.
The piano rises to the level of commentator as it recalls the music of
the first song, "Seit ich ihn gesehen" (since I saw him), where
the heroine first realizes she loves her future husband. All of this makes
for a more complex psychology than the poems alone. However, I confess
that my favorite song of the cycle is one of the simplest -- "Du Ring
an meinem Finger" (you ring on my finger), also the cycle's breakout
There have been several outstanding recordings of the cycle, including
Lotte Lehmann with Bruno Walter at the piano, Janet Baker and Daniel Barenboim,
Edith Mathis and Christoph Eschenbach, and Anne Sofie von Otter accompanied
by Bengt Forsberg. I'm told of an "exquisite" performance with
Ferrier and Walter, but I haven't heard it. I love Janet Baker's performance,
mainly because I love her voice, but I must say that Lieberson outshines
everybody I know in the way she puts these songs across. Somehow she manages
to overcome the insidious treacle of the verse, painting a believable (and
desirable) picture of unbelievably pure devotion. In the final song, she
gives the illusion of fading away into old age and death.
For the encores of the Debussy and Handel, Lieberson finds herself on more
familiar ground. I hope there's a recording somewhere of an entire Fêtes
galantes. Her Handel always had the virtue of humanity and acuity. The
composer was never merely a spinner of notes for her, as he has been for
so many other singers, but a creator of drama.
Julius Drake accompanies beautifully, although I miss that final bit of
telepathy that one can get between Stephen Varcoe and Penelope Thwaites,
Janet Baker and Martin Isepp, or Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore -- that
extra jolt that makes you believe singer and accompanist are one and the
same. The sound is fine. Audience noise is kept to a minimum. You barely
realize an audience is there until the applause.
S.G.S. (April 2009)