always had a liking for the German folk-song. This can be discerned
in his own melodies, although he rarely borrowed actual songs
or themes. He admitted though that the horncall in his first
symphony was something he had heard in the Alps. Also no less than forty of his original
songs were settings of German folk-poetry. He collected folk-tunes
and he occasionally made arrangements of them, not least for
choir. Late in life he found the time to pick some of his favourite
songs and compose piano accompaniments to them. He was not what
would today be called an authenticist; much of what he set was
far from traditional and quite a few of the tunes were actually
composed by known composers. Brahms didn’t bother; he chose
the tunes he liked and put his harmonic stamp on them. All in
all his collection consisted of 49 songs, of which 42 were set
for voice and piano, while the rest were for chorus and solo.
On the present disc Stephan Genz sings 28 of the solo-songs.
He has made a good choice although the remaining 14 are also
well worth hearing. Normally, when these songs are performed
in concert or on disc, they are sung by two singers, one male
and one female. Many of the songs are in fact dialogues between
a shepherd and a shepherdess, a hunter and a shepherdess etc
and when sung by one singer only they lose something of the
idea. Also for the sake of variety it is an advantage to use
two singers. It says a lot about Stephan Genz’s singing that
one hardly misses the female voice. Among today’s young and
middle-aged Lieder singers, and there are many excellent ones
around, Genz is one of the best. His is a light lyrical baritone,
not dissimilar in tone and timbre to his tenor-brother Christoph.
His is a very flexible instrument, he knows how to colour the
voice without going to extremes, he controls the dynamics masterly
and knows exactly the limitation of his resources. Add to this
that it is one of the most beautiful voices imaginable and it
is no wonder that he consistently receives rave reviews. This
disc, possibly his debut recording, was made in 1998 when he
was still only 25. He has developed since, but his singing was
already remarkably mature even this early.
classic recording of these songs is of course the EMI set released
in 1966 with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,
accompanied by Gerald Moore. I have owned it since it was first
published and every time I hear some of these songs it is always
their version that rings in my head. It can be objected
that these two masters might be too artful, too explicit with
their word painting, too emphatic. As a matter of fact they
seldom are, but there are moments when one could wish for a
simpler, more straightforward delivery. Listening to Stephan
Genz, that’s exactly what he gives us. There is such naturalness
about the whole disc, which of course means that there is a
tremendous lot of thinking and planning behind. Interestingly
Genz has studied with both Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau.
Listening to e.g. Da unten im Tale (track 2) one can
recognize in the last stanza, sung in that exquisite half-voice,
something of Fischer-Dieskau’s timbre. This song also demonstrates
very clearly his ability to underline the ebb and flow of the
music. And this is not an isolated example: in each song there
are things to admire, not least the piano playing of Roger Vignoles,
who sometimes urges on, sometimes holds back, always having
a keen eye (or rather ear) for what his partner is aiming at.
some reason the songs are performed not in the published order,
which Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau do, but in some random
sequence, which works well enough. In some of the “duets” Genz
actually colours his voice to impersonate the boy and the girl,
but only discreetly so, never over-doing anything (tracks 18
and 19), while in Ach, englische Schäferin (track 13)
he doesn’t bother, since Brahms anyway differentiates the accompaniments.
Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund (track 20) is sung to
perfection with flexible rubato and his legato singing in the
very last song, In stiller Nacht (track 28), is a marvel.
This song is indeed the last in the published order and Brahms
wrote to his publisher Simrock: “So let my best song be put
last, but let the last be shown as my best.” As sung here it
is a worthy end to a wonderful recital. The recorded sound is
very good, the balance between voice and piano ideal and the
booklet contains not only a good essay by Marcus Imbsweiler
about Brahms and his attitude to folk songs, in three languages,
but also the sung texts with English translations!
all this at bargain price.
Schwarzkopf/Fischer-Dieskau/Moore recording will never be driven
out of competition and is a must with all 42 songs, recently
reissued at budget price, but Genz’s less sophisticated, more
naturally flowing, readings are just as valid. Lovers of this
music need both.