There are a great many great recordings of some of the music on this disc. In the case of the wonderful Opus 39 cycle, which forms the heart of this record, there have been performances by such great names as Matthias Goerne, Ian Bostridge and Kate Royal (in collaboration with Graham Johnson on his excellent Hyperion series), so this new CD is entering a crowded marketplace. However, do not let the big names sway you before you consider buying this. Goerne's tone can at times be reedy and not entirely pleasant, and anyone who has read any of my other reviews will know of my intense allergy to Bostridge. Yes, the man has a pleasant, light tenor voice, but his interpretation seems hysterical, neurotic at times, and I can bear no more than about 5 minutes of his disc which combines "Dichterliebe" with Opus 39. In the case of Johnson, I must admit I have enormous admiration for his projects, but his playing rarely gains my affection - it can seem at times almost a little clinical for my tastes.
So what does Christain Gerhaher have to offer? He is a young man (and a trained doctor, should you ever fall ill at one of his concerts) who has released some very well received discs, but he has not achieved anything like the superstar status of his contemporary Goerne. His voice is a classic baritone: expressive, controlled and capable of dramatic excursions into high registers without any hint of roughness or effort, and warm enough at the lower end to drive the grittier lines in Schumann's writing. But above all it is a voice that is hugely enjoyable just to listen to, and through which to experience wonderful music.
And that is where the success of this disc lies: Opus 39 is for me a unique achievement in Schumann's output in that it is so distinctly different from all his other cycles. Even on a disc with as restrictive a title as "Melancholie", Opus 39 seems to glow with the calm reflectiveness that characterises so much of Eichendorff's poetry. Where Heine (whose poetry supplied "Dichterliebe" and Opus 24) is full of sardonic, ironic and bitter energy, Eichendorff prefers to find redemption in solitude. That is not to say he is all sweetness and light, though: the final line of "Auf einer Burg" is heartbreaking, nothing less.
I have written a lot about Opus 39, but for me the joy of this disc was finding new works that I otherwise overlook. Gerhaher takes some small sets in complete form, and makes "melancholic" selections from others, and the contrast with Opus 39 is striking. The opening song could almost be by Wolf, and Schumann's remarkable range is demonstrated in his settings of poems by poets as great and diverse as Goethe and Chamisso. In fact, I can think of few other discs where the line-up of poets is as formidable as this!
Unfortunately, there is one small drawback which should be considered, or at least allowed for when you buy this disc, especially considering the quality and power of the poetry contained within. The texts are provided, but without translations of any kind, so, unless you are an avid reader of German romantic lyrics (and I must admit that I do fall into that category), you may want to use the excellent Lied and Art Songs page to find good translations. However, this is only a minor disappointment when taken into consideration against the achievements of this CD. Gerhaher has brought wonderful repertoire to life in a considered, powerful and intensely musical way, employing his outstanding voice to great effect. I know I will be enjoying this disc for many years to come.
This dude can sing. Also check out his CD of Mahler songs, which is equally good (and which features the same pianist in what is definitely a strong partnership). I am by no means an expert and unable to compare the technical calibre of Mr Gerhaher's voice with that of other singers. The quality I like most, though, is that Gerhaher sings the words as if they have a forceful meaning. To my ears, a little like Fischer-Dieskau in that regard, My only quibble would be that this CD includes the text of the songs in German but with no translation (Gerhaher's Mahler CD, incidentally, does include an English translation alongside the German original).