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
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.
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.
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!