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Refined and pallid readings
on 28 September 2013
Great mezzo-sopranos Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig and Frederica Von Stade have all recorded these three songs-cycles, while Lorraine Hunt Lieberson has recorded the "Rückert-Lieder" only with piano, and in general I prefer a female voice in them. Fewer men have recorded them all, although there is no reason why they should not be interpreted by a male voice and some are treasurable. Not being a Fischer-Dieskau fan, my points of male comparison are with Mahler specialist Thomas Hampson's various recordings, starting with those made over twenty-five years ago with Bernstein, and Mahler Lieder collections by José van Dam and Andreas Schmidt. I have to say that I find so much more life and beauty in the singing of all three than I do here with Gerhaher - and that is without my having heard versions by singers such as Stephen Genz, Dietrich Henschel and Roman Trekel. Bo Skovhus included the Rückert-Lieder in a recital of early Mahler songs in the piano arrangement but it was not, to my mind, particularly successful; by and large, the ladies rule. However, I would love to hear the fine Austrian baritone Florian Boesch sing these songs.
Gerhaher has a light, faintly nasal baritone typical of more recent German vocal, tradition; he enunciates words carefully but there is almost no variety of tone or attempt to colour the sound; the effect for me is soporific rather than mesmeric. The nasality of the timbre increases with volume and pitch; I kept thinking of how Baker or Ludwig - or, in more apt and direct comparisons, Hampson and van Dam - colour a phrase and characterise whereas Gerhaher seems almost to croon. There is something to be said for a non-interventionist approach but alongside Hampson's and Bernstein's heart-on-sleeve delivery, Gerhaher seems very cool and pale.
However, he is certainly more animated in the "Rückert-Lieder", even if weak low notes compromise the integrity of his range, as in the opening of "Ich bin der Welt anhanden gekommen" and indeed throughout the song, despite the ease of his top. I find there to be very little still magic in his singing at the conclusion of this most rapt and metaphysical of songs; the serenity is provided by Nagano's orchestral postlude, even though the brisk tempo, resulting in a track length of 5'39", is too fast to permit real rapture.
Gerhaher's restrained plaintiveness is an emotion which might be more appropriate in the "Rückert-Lieder" but the "Songs of the Wayfarer" and the "Kindertotenlieder" are surely meant to be deeply moving, as they treat of tragic loss, hopeless love and the death of a child; Gerhaher seems too often to be offering a generalised experience of mild sadness and the songs are diminished thereby. Where some hear inwardness and effortless poise, I hear small-scale restraint. There is a marked difference between the generous phrasing and round, expansive beauty of José van Dam's "Liebst du um Schönheit" and Gerhaher's pinched reduction of this most ecstatic of love songs.
Less is more? Not if it's less, it isn't.
Nagano's accompaniment is sensitive and supportive; I particularly like the deliberately squally, rustic timbre of the oboe d'amore in "Um Mitternacht". The sound is very good but inconsiderate coughing is an irritation, as is the fact that the songs are not listed on the back of the CD; you have to pull out and open the booklet to find where individual songs are. No total timing is provided; the figure of 54'43" is mine.