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Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)
Liederkreis Op. 24 (1840) [18:35];
Liederkreis Op. 39 (1840) [22:45];
Dichterliebe Op. 48 (1840) [25:55]
Peter Schreier (tenor), András Schiff (piano)
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, 9-10 July 2002
ORFEO C 658 051 B [67:33]

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On July 29, 2005, Peter Schreier celebrated his 70th birthday. To mark the occasion, Orfeo released this disc, recorded three years earlier and it turns out to be something that no lover of German lieder should miss.

Schreier has had an uncommonly long career. There have been more than four decades as one of the world’s leading lyrical tenors and before that he was a member of the famous Dresdner Kreuzchor. It is remarkable to hear his voice still in perfect shape. There’s none of the usual defects that creep in with advanced age: a widening vibrato, a thinning of tone or increasing dryness. Of course, his was never one of the sappiest of voices. It is characterized more by innate musicality, stylishness and keenness with the text. Very much aware of his vocal qualities he has stuck to the repertoire for which they were meant: Mozart and the masters of lyric German opera; Bach on the concert stage; and Lieder, where he belongs to a very small and select group of outstanding post-war singers.

This disc, in Orfeo’s series “Grosse Sänger unseres Jahrhunderts” (Great Singers of the Century) is not from a live event but recorded under studio conditions in one of the best venues in Europe, the Lukaskirche in Dresden. Schreier has sung there probably hundreds of times. His son, Torsten, is producer and technician. He is accompanied by one of today’s truly great pianists, András Schiff.

Surely, at 67 there has to have been some deterioration of the voice, I thought. For comparison I took down a couple of older Schreier recordings. Going back ten years I first listened to his contribution to the Hyperion Schubert Edition. There he sounded exactly the same. Going back a further decade there was still no discernible difference of quality. I had to delve back to his earliest years and an LP with highlights from Don Pasquale, sung in German, to find a more youthful and more rounded tone. So nobody need hesitate about the condition of the voice. When it comes to his use of it he has always been a master of nuance, especially his superb use of the half-voice. Having worked with these songs for so many years, thought and rethought and cultivated his interpretations, there is not a phrase, not an accent, that doesn’t sound wholly convincing. Other singers may have sung them differently but not necessarily better. I reviewed Brigitte Fassbaender in the Liederkreis Op. 24 earlier this year (see review). Going back to that disc only confirmed that here are two unforgettable performances. With Schreier you feel in very safe company when guided through these three song-cycles from Schumann’s great Lieder year: 1840.

Looking through the notes I made while listening there are copious comments and exclamation marks. It would be tiresome to repeat in detail what I wrote. What recurs however, is the cooperation between singer and pianist. There are of course hours and hours of rehearsal work behind this but there is also a sense that they actually listen and adjust to each other, acting on the spur of the moment. Listen to Mondnacht (track 14), one of Schumann’s finest inspirations, sung to perfection. Schiff shows in the interlude that he is a great soloist but then reverts to his no less important role as accompanist, supporting, underlining and commenting on the song line. In the last song in Dichterliebe, Die alten, bösen Lieder (track 37), Schiff almost overwhelms you with his first chords, but Schreier, after a withdrawn start, follows suit with an intensely dramatic reading of the song proper. He shades down to an end that is as intimate as can be imagined, whereupon Schiff is free, as it feels, to extemporize the postlude. That Schreier still has the power to make the most of the more dramatic songs is exposed time and again, e.g. in Waldesgespräch (track 12). Compare this to Auf einer Burg (track 16) where he is old and – so it sounds – covered with cobwebs, draining his voice of most of its sonority. It is a low-lying song and he utilizes this to sound – otherworldly. In the next song, In der Fremde (track 17) he is eager and expectant. This is a singer who has never tired of these songs but relishes them every time he sings them. I used to like a recording of this Liederkreis Op. 39 by Erna Berger, the coloratura soprano turned Lieder-singer in the 1950s. That recording is still charming although the crackly LP surface diminishes its attraction. However she can’t compare to Schreier. Zwielicht for example, is only run through by Berger while Schreier, with a superior pianist, makes it a matter of life and death.

In Dichterliebe, which Schreier has made very much his own, he adopts a youthful tone; this is a most winning performance. In Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ (track 25) he is fast and eager, on the other hand Ich will meine Seele tauchen (track 26) is on the slow side, maybe too slow. Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome (track 27), unforgettably sung by Gérard Souzay on a Philips recording from the 1960s, ideally needs even more power than Schreier can muster. Elsewhere he is fully up to the requirements. Ich grolle nicht (track 28) reveals that his top notes are still in fine fettle, and Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen (track 32) is sung with the utmost elegance.

This disc will definitely occupy a place of honour in my lieder collection. Whenever I want to hear a mature master lavish his experience and taste on these song-cycles I will know where to go. This disc is a worthy tribute to “The Art of Peter Schreier”. The only regrettable thing about it is the lack of the sung texts. The booklet has instead an essay by Gottfried Kraus, who has known Schreier since the early 1970s. This is entitled “Song as a form of the noblest chamber music”. True indeed!

Göran Forsling



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