climb must seem a gentle stroll compared with the heights singers
must scale in these songs. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is just one
of a select few to reach the top, although lieder lovers are
divided about the methods she uses to get there. And there are
others – Brigitte Fassbaender, Soile Isokoski, Dame Felicity
Lott, Renée Fleming and Jessye Norman spring to mind. As for
the men there’s always Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with the incomparable
To even get through
the foothills mezzo Hedwig Fassbender needs to be very accomplished
indeed. Even though she started out as a pianist as a singer
she has sung many operatic roles in Europe, among them Marguerite
(Faust), Judith (Bluebeard), Marie (Wozzeck)
and the Marschallin (Rosenkavalier), not to mention heavyweight
Wagner (Fricka and Isolde). Her partner on this particular outing
is pianist and teacher Hilko Dumno.
is framed by two Op. 27 songs, Heimliche Aufforderung (‘Secret
Invitation’) and Ruhe, meine Seele (‘Rest
my soul’) the first longing for a night-time tryst, the
second for inner peace. Fassbender’s voice simply lacks colour
and tonal shading in the Mackay setting, with little sign of
real eagerness or anticipation in ‘du wunderbare, ersehnte Nacht’.
In Ruhe, meine Seele, though, her quieter, more inward
singing sounds rather better, although her tone is not particularly
attractive under pressure. That said her diction is clear enough
and Dumno proves a suitably sympathetic accompanist.
But is mere competence
enough in this repertoire? Vocally Fassbender does not have
the ease and amplitude of, say, Jessye Norman, or the line,
light and shade of Schwarzkopf. Whatever your preferences these
singers bring something indefinably special to this music, illuminating
the texts in a way Fassbender can’t quite manage. And although
a large voice is not a prerequisite it would help here, as the
piano is rather too prominent at times.
The Lenau settings
of Op. 26 are of roughly the same vintage, and O wärst du
Mein! (‘O if you were mine!’) has a real sense of longing.
Fassbender’s habit of lingering over certain words as if to
emphasise their meaning could become tedious over time, but
then we’re still in the undergrowth here, the summit a very
long way off.
The early Op. 10
settings are probably the most Schubertian of Strauss’s songs,
with some lovely, limpid piano writing in Geduld (‘Patience’).
What troubles me most about Fassbender’s light mezzo is that
it can sound strained even under mild pressure, although she
manages the relatively short Verschwiegenen (‘The Confidantes’)
easily enough. There are a few problems in Zueignung (‘Dedication’)
as well, notably a strange ‘gear change’ at 1:18, while the
phrasing of Nichts (‘Nothing’) is just too generalised
for my tastes. And in Die Georgine Dumno makes the delightful
accompaniment sound curiously lumpen. As always, though, I wanted
rather more character from the voice which, to be fair, Fassbender
does deliver in Die Zeitlose (‘The Meadow Saffron’).
And in Allerseelen (‘All Souls’) Dumno makes amends
with some particularly mellifluous playing; for her part Fassbender
manages to distil something of the song’s strange, melancholic
Of the very early
songs, Nebel (‘Mist’) was written when Strauss was just
14. It’s a remarkably assured piece of juvenilia, whose more
subdued, reflective nature plays to Fassbender’s vocal strengths.
Written two years later Begegnung (‘Meeting’) is altogether
brighter and more animated and both singer and pianist readily
respond to its naïve charm. These qualities are also reflected
in Rote Rosen (‘Red Roses’), dedicated to Strauss’s girlfriend
of the moment. Once again Dumno and Fassbender seem to have
the measure of this beguiling music.
The Friedrich settings
of Op. 15 – Lob des Leidens (‘Praise of Suffering’)
and Aus den Liedern der Trauer (‘From Songs of the
Mourner’) – are more harmonically assured and demand more from
the singer in terms of vocal and emotional range. Predictably
Fassbender’s voice hardens in the more exposed writing but elsewhere
she is generally sensitive to the nuances of the text.
(‘Lotus Leaves’) form the basis of Op. 19. The range of
Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten (‘How should we keep
it secret’) gives the singer something of a workout, but Fassbender
seems much more comfortable with Hoffen und wieder verzagen
(‘Hoping and despairing again’). She tackles the taxing
passages rather well and her diction is beautifully clear in
the sombre Mein Herz ist stumm, mein Herz ist kalt (‘My
heart is silent, my heart is cold’).
Overall, the Op.
19 songs and the single Op. 21 – Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden
(‘Ah, love, I must leave you now’) – are among the most
satisfying on the disc. True, the summit may still be some way
off but at least we’re out of the troublesome thickets and advancing
towards the snowline, The Felix Dahn setting O wärst du mein
(‘O if you were mine’) is most interesting for its strange,
dark harmonies; unfortunately Fassbender has another of those
awkward ‘gear changes’ at 1:50, which rather spoilt the song
As so often Strauss
can’t resist a little night music. The Op. 29 Nachtgang
(‘Night walk’) has a magical piano part and I found myself focusing
on that rather than the vocal line, as I am wont to do when
listening to Gerald Moore playing Schubert. But in Ich liebe
dich (‘I love you’), Strauss’s pledge of love and loyalty
to his wife Pauline, it is the voice that demands all one’s
attention. Fassbender sings with commendable spirit and projects
her voice very well, so much so that I was even willing to forgive
her that hint of squall at the end.
With Op. 39 and
Strauss’s setting of Dehmel’s Befreit (‘Free’) we are
as close to the summit as we’re going to get. At more than five
minutes it is one of the longest songs on the disc. It has a
wonderful, rippling accompaniment and Fassbender certainly relishes
the long vocal lines. Even the occasional unsteadiness – and
yes, a distracting ‘gear change’ at 4:24 – can’t spoil what
is one of Strauss’s most haunting songs. Indeed, it seems to
inhabit the same serene, valedictory world of the Four Last
recital doesn’t reach that elusive summit, which is a pity as
there are moments when Fassbender and Dumno give a hint of what
might have been. However you like your Strauss there are some
compelling interpretations on record that will always be hard
to beat. On its own terms and at budget price this disc might
just be worth acquiring, but for depth of insight, characterisation
and glorious, impassioned singing you must look elsewhere.
see also Review
by Göran Forsling December BARGAIN
OF THE MONTH
*The texts can be
downloaded from here
as a PDF file (nine pages in all). The translations are workmanlike
but not always accurate. Still, they should suffice as an introduction
to these songs.