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S & H Recital Review

Schumann Olaf Bär (baritone); Julius Drake (piano). Wigmore Hall, 1pm, Monday, 27th October, 2002 (CC)


Dresden-based baritone Olaf Bär has built up quite a reputation for fine Lieder singing since his 1985 EMI disc of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Liederkreis, Op. 39 (CDC7 47397-2). There the pianist was Geoffrey Parsons; here, Julius Drake was the excellent accompanist.

Perhaps surprisingly using music, Bär began the recital with Schumann’s Op. 36, Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers, of the Wunderjahr 1840. The poems, by Robert Reinick, are hardly of the highest order, but Schumann’s voice makes this almost incidental. Bär was warmly focussed, with a seamless legato in the first song (‘Sonntags am Rhein’). He even took the trouble to look positively patriotic at the word, ‘Vaterland’. The only question mark concerned a strained low note, not a problem which recurred – a slightly incomplete warm-up, perhaps? The postlude to the first song gave Drake an opportunity to show his utter sensitivity to Schumann’s writing, a trait that continued throughout the recital.

If ‘An den Sonnenschein’ revealed a slight lack of power in Bär’s upper register, he imbued ‘Nichts schöneres’ with a youthful breathlessness. The two artists combined to make ‘Dichters Genesung’ (‘The Poet’s Convalescence’) a dramatic scena on a par with Schubert’s Der Zwerg. But the final song, fittingly, acted as the lyrical climax. ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (‘Love’s message’) was a dream of an oasis of peace. Schumann’s segue through the final two stanzas made the final moments an uninterrupted stream of Romanticism, Drake’s postlude as always a model of beauty. Not the most popular of Schumann’s Lieder, Bär and Drake made this a performance to cherish.

The Drei Lieder aus Wilhelm Meister of 1849, nine years later, followed. More harmonically complex, they brought out the best in Bär, particularly the Winterreise-isch third Lied, ‘An die Türen will ich schleichen’ (‘From the door will I steal’). Particularly effective was his bleaching of his tone, leading to the viscerally-projected anguish of the second, ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt’ (’Who gives himself to loneliness’). These three Meister-Lieder were much more than an interlude between the opus numbers.

Finally, the Eichendorff Liederkreis, Op. 39, once again from 1840. Right from the first number, ‘In der Fremde’ (‘In a foreign land’), an underlying lyric impulse was established: the words, ‘Da ruhe ich auf’ came as a clear emotional (as opposed to dynamic) climax. A pity, then, that Bär luxuriated in his own sound in the ‘Intermezzo’ rather than projecting the wonder of his beloved’s picture. But this was the exception. Op. 39 emerged as a single inevitable line, with both performers enjoying, with Schumann, Eichendorff’s echt-Romantic imagery. For once it is a pleasure to write about a singer whose diction was not only beyond reproach, but who actually went to the meaning of those words. A prime example was when Bär vividly and obviously enjoyed the pure sound of the word ‘Hexe’ (witch/sorceress) in ‘Waldesgespräch’ (‘Wood dialogue’). Atmospheres were created instantaneously, be it the stillness of ‘Auf einer Burg’ (‘In a castle’) or the flightiness of ‘In der Fremde’ (‘In a foreign land’), or the jubilation of ‘Im Walde’ (‘In the wood’). The final song, ‘Frühlingsnacht’, was as exultant as could be wished. We even got an encore – ‘Aus den stlichen Rosen’ (words Rückert) from Myrthen, Op. 25. A remarkable, life-affirming recital. All praise to Bär for his eminently musical sensitivity, and to Drake for his marvellous accompanying skills.

Colin Clarke



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