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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Aufträge; Der Nussbaum; Das Verlassne Mägdlein; Er Ist's; Frauenliebe und leben; Lieder nach Dedichten von Nikolaus Lenau; Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart; Zigeunerliedchen I; Zigeunerliedchen II; Frühlingsnacht
Johannnes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Trennung.
Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo) Erik Werba (piano)
Recorded live, Salzburg Kleines Festspielehaus, 13 August 1977.
ORFEO C 636041 B [64'37"]

It may be a cliché to call a singer unique, but Brigitte Fassbaender was the genuine article. What an unusual, distinctive voice she had - instantly recognisable for its agility in the lower ranges, its richness of colour and timbre. But above all her musicianship was acute. She brought to everything she sang a profound intelligence. Sadly her career was relatively short for, as her voice deepened and grew even more beautiful, the repertoire for her voice type did not keep up. She had the courage to challenge preconceptions about song, taking on masterpieces like Winterreise and Kindertotenlieder, which many women dare not tackle, and she had the vocal range to make them her own. This recording, of a live recital at Salzburg in 1977 shows her in the full bloom of youth. It was a performance that catapulted her into prominence. She is a revered role model for younger singers, particularly altos and darker mezzos. This is a chance to hear her when she was on her way into greatness.

The programme is a mixed selection of songs by Schumann, many taken out of their familiar settings in collections. From the moment Fassbaender launched into Aufträge, the audience must have perked up, remarking how assuredly she negotiated the heady, faced paced lines. Erik Werba, a master performer gave no quarter. His attack was sharp and precise, speeding along relentlessly. She was easily his match, fearlessly negotiating the trickier passages with no loss of poise. Hardly had listeners time to catch their breath when she produced an unusually mature, tender Der Nußbaum.

But what would really have stunned the audience was her rendition of Frauenliebe und leben. This cycle is much maligned because it portrays a woman happily accepting that her identity will be shaped by a man. It's hopelessly romantic; not at all in tune with feminist ideals. But Fassbaender is no mindless Stepford Wife. Her interpretation is firm and clear-eyed, with no trills or decoration. The conviction with which she sings portrays real dignity and depth of feeling - this is a woman who knows herself and the power of love. Kathleen Ferrier, no wimp herself, is known to have sung Du Ring an meinem Finger coyly looking at her ring finger, with endearing charm. Fassbaender's protagonist, however, is erotic and strong, whose charm comes from her own self respect. To this day, Fassbaender's interpretations of this cycle are an antidote to the assumption that it is merely sentimentality and submissiveness. If it still stuns us today, the audience thirty years ago must have been amazed - the applause is captured with full force.

Sandwiched between random Lenau and Heine settings is the still seldom heard cycle Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart. What intelligence put this and Frauenliebe und leben together! This cycle, too, follows a woman from youth to death, but in very different circumstances. Maria Stuart had little choice in her destiny but faced her fate with courage. Each song is sparsely set, with little pianistic elaboration. It is up to the singer to provide the drama. Fassbaender again delivers, with conviction and dignity.

Surprisingly, Fassbaender is a little unsteady in classics like Mit Myrthen und Rosen where she forces herself slightly on phrases like "wenn ich selber im Grab", and later in Ein Jungling liebt ein Mädchen where she pushes her voice too high. She's back on top form in the two Zigeunerliedchen with their defiant gypsy flourishes. Werba is a wonderful partner, his affirmative playing making no compromise with the youth of his singer. The interplay between pianist and voice is beautifully showcased in dialogues like "Ich sitze und sinne, und sinne, und träume". Fassbaender sound extremely lithe and fresh, and Werba takes the song into its famous postlude with grace. Again, the dialogues in Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht are good examples of partnership.

This being a live recital, there's a lot of applause, made more extreme because there are so many different works. Before the encore, Brahmsí Trennung, there is a slight but noticeable cut, so it would probably be a choice between applause and cuts. The applause at least recreates the sense of a historic occasion. No texts are included, but this is again hardly a problem since this is such well known repertoire.

Anne Ozorio

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