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Hugo WOLF (1860–1903) 10 Lieder Der Knabe und das Immlein; Das verlassene Mägdlein; Begegnung; Nimmersatte Liebe; Er ist’s; Verschwiegene Liebe; Verborgenheit; Bescheidene Liebe; Auch kleine Dinge; In dem Schatten meiner Locken
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) 10 Lieder Du meines Herzens Krönelein; Meinem Kinde; Ich schwebe wie auf Engelsschwingen; Die Nacht; Morgen; Allerseelen; Meine Auge; Schön sind, doch kalt die Himmelssterne; Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden; Ständchen
Barbara Bonney (soprano), Geoffrey Parsons (piano)
Recorded at Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg-Harburg, June 1989
ELOQUENCE 476 2387 [55:18]


Ever since she first made herself a name during the latter half of the 1980s, Barbara Bonney has been one of the very best lyrical sopranos. Hers is a voice ideal for Mozart’s Susanna and Zerlina, roles that she recorded for Harnoncourt and then again for Arnold Östman at about the same time. Even more of an international calling card was her Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, and so it comes as no surprise that she is also a splendid interpreter of Strauss’s Lieder. All through her career she has sung Lieder just as much as opera, and not just German Lieder. Being American she has done quite a lot of music from her native land, quite recently on the new Onyx label [review]. Having been married to baritone Håkan Hagegård and lived in Sweden for several years, she has also specialised in Scandinavian songs. Here, on what has to be one of her earliest solo albums, recorded in 1989, she treats us to a score of songs by the two greatest late-romantic masters, Wolf and Richard Strauss. Although they were of roughly the same age, the two composers were quite different in most respects. Strauss was well-organized and orderly while Wolf, through mental instability, was prone to long periods of inactivity. Outside these doldrum periods he composed almost frenetically, producing several songs a day. Wolf was also the one who was most sensitive to the poems, always trying to shape the music to fit every nuance of the text while Strauss was often satisfied to find the appropriate mood of the poem and then create flowing melodies, sensual or noble or sometimes intensely dramatic.

A good Wolf interpreter needs a wide palette of vocal colours. While Barbara Bonney is far from monochrome she can’t quite muster the expressive means of a Schwarzkopf or a Seefried, to mention two important singers from an earlier generation. She compensates however through the beauty of her voice, the unforced lyrical quality of the singing and her ability to control the dynamics. She also has the late lamented Geoffrey Parsons as her exquisite accompanist. In the first song on this recital, Der Knabe und das Immlein (The Boy and the Bee), one of several Mörike texts, we hear the silvery voice at its most beautiful. Parsons finds the tone to match the voice. He plays a lovely introduction to the next song, Das verlassene Mägdlein (The Forsaken Maidservant), also a Mörike poem, and Bonney’s light lyric voice is at its freshest, youthful but mature, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. Even in the agitated Begegnung she keeps the dynamics within her lyrical range and lets Parsons provide the drama.

In every song there are so many fine details; the lovely Eichendorff setting, Verschwiegene Liebe, for instance, is sung on a thin thread of tone perfectly controlled. The two songs from Italienisches Liederbuch (tracks 9 and 10) are also gems.

As I implied earlier, Strauss suits Bonney even better. The choice of songs is good with several of the most well-known ones juxtaposed with a couple of rarities. My note-pad is littered with exclamation marks; it is hard to imagine these songs better sung. In Du meines Herzens Krönelein (track 11), one of Strauss’s finest songs, one can revel in the beauty of the voice, crystal clear and warm, with that little flutter so instantly recognizable. Meinem Kinde (track 12) has a pianissimo ending that leaves the listener breathless but not the singer. In the little known Ich schwebe wie auf Engelsschwingen (track 13) she literally "hovers as if on Angels’ wings". The prelude to Morgen is wonderfully played and Bonney’s voice emerges, so to speak, from out of the piano. She has a brilliant forte in Allerseelen, sacrificing beauty. In Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden there are echoes of Zerbinetta’s aria. They end the recital with a twittering Ständchen, Parsons painting the background with a light touch and Bonney’s bright and warm notes falling like shimmering pearls. This is a generous gift to the audience - they gave this song as a last encore at their recitals.

Barbara Bonney has made many outstanding discs with fine pianists, among them a Mendelssohn programme, also with Parsons. Through the years she has acquired even deeper insight into the songs, but I wonder if any of her later offerings can challenge the freshness and beauty of this Wolf/Strauss compilation. The only thing I regret about it is the presentation: as so often in the budget field we are denied texts and translations. Instead we have "only" a good essay about the music by John Williamson. Don’t let this deter you from acquiring a really lovely recital.

Göran Forsling

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