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Fantasies and Dream-Figures
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Im Walde D.708 [06:59]; An den Mond D.193 [05:09]; Nachtstück D.672 [05:20]; Der Zweig D.771 [05:15]; Abendstern D.806 [02:17]; Auflösung D.807 [02:24]; Nacht und Träume D.827 [03:35]; Erlkönig D.328 [04:22]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
4 Lieder op.2 [08:47]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Mörike-Lieder: Die Geister am Mummelsee [03:48]; Gesang Weylas [02:10]; Elfenlied [02:19]; Um Mitternacht [03:38]; Auf eine Christblume I [06:25]; Lied von Winde [02:43]
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo), Joseph Breinl (piano)
rec. 21-23 July 2005, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
ONYX 4009 [63:33]

Really, the only possible criticism of the whole enterprise is that the subtitle – “Fantasies and dream-figures” – might have been blazoned on the front instead in smallish letters on the back. As a critic I tend to bypass the presentational material until I have heard the disc at least once – others need not take this precaution – and it began to dawn on me after about four songs that this was a weird if fascinatingly compulsive selection: Schubert in menacingly dramatic mood, the piano evoking grey, swirling mists, the voice pungently expressive. It is as though one stepped into the National Gallery and, without noticing that there was a special exhibition on entitled “Fantasies and dream-figures”, found oneself confronted with, in place of the usual generalized trip around the art-world, a progression of grotesque figures starting with Bosch and working through Füssli and Dadd to arrive at, maybe, some Kollwitz etchings (which could be a rough pictorial equivalent of the Berg).
Of course, once I realized what was happening it all fitted into place and I must say that, by hearing a concentration of a certain type of Schubert subject-matter which we more often hear mixed in with completely different ones, it struck me that “night and dreams” have a more important role in Schubert’s work than it often appears. It’s quite revealing to hear a selection which deliberately avoids images of the lonely wanderer among gentle brooks and spring pastures.
“ Night and Dreams”, of course, is one of Schubert’s most famous songs, and the inclusion of this and “Erlkönig” allows us to have full measure of a quite remarkable singer-interpreter. I don’t honestly remember ever having heard a woman sing “Erlkönig” before, though I suppose some must have, and in view of the three voices plus narrator required I don’t see how any voice-type can be a priori righter or wronger than others. In the event, it is a fearsome, menacing ride; Stotijn manages three quite distinct timbres for the stern, uncomprehending father, the pleading child and the wheedling, coaxing Erlkönig. She is also fortunate in a pianist who is magnificently in control of the mounting excitement and doom.
Yet “Nacht und Träume” is perhaps a greater challenge still, and it is a challenge met with a perfectly controlled long line. The real difficulty here, however, is not just one of breath control – the piece isn’t entitled “Vocalise”! – but one of the proper balance between words and line. All too easily, the words can either get lost or get in the way. Stotijn proves to have mastered totally this aspect of the lieder-singer’s art, producing a long-spun line in which words flicker to the surface like wavelets on a moonlit sea. Turning to the recording by Dame Janet Baker (EMI) only reinforced the impression that here we have something very special indeed; Dame Janet draws the song out no end (4:34 as compared with 3:35) and is less impressive precisely because she is so obviously intending to impress.
Comparison with Dame Janet is rather invited since she is listed - together with Udo Reinemann and Jard van Nes - as one of Stotijn’s voice coaches. I must say I can’t imagine two more different singers, Stotijn impulsive and spontaneous where Baker is controlled and regal, achieving communication through inner tensions. I had Baker comparisons for two others of these songs, and here again I found myself preferring Stotijn. In “Abendstern” Stotijn is so natural in her placing of the words; with Baker, that characteristic “spelling it out” of the first three notes of each phrase, a habit she perhaps inherited from Ferrier, does seem fussy and obsessively regal – you can almost see the diadem glinting as she metes out justice to each syllable.
In “Auflösung” Baker is again overbearing where Stotijn’s almost expressionist delivery – notably in the last line – ends up by impressing more. This song also reveals another chink in Baker’s armoury. As she became increasingly obsessed with making herself a mezzo-soprano when her early Saga records and her “Sea Pictures” surely prove that nature made her a contralto, she had a tendency to choose keys at least a semitone higher than she needed. So if Stotijn is free to concentrate on characterization, it is also because she does not have to concentrate on bringing off a vocal feat. Yes, of course Dame Janet was a great singer but hers was not the only way and here is the proof of it.
I must say that, in these last two songs, it was also a pleasure to remind myself of Christiane Iven’s recital as part of the ongoing Naxos survey (see review) – a refreshingly musical alternative if you are in the mood for something less interventionist yet still full of innate feeling.
I made a few comparisons in the Wolf group with Joan Rodgers in the fairly recent Hyperion complete Mörike-Lieder; shared with Stephan Genz. In “Elfenlied” Rodgers has a tripping delicacy that is a pleasure in itself. Stotijn’s opening line is menacing and she thereafter uses a slower tempo to create a very sinister picture indeed. Both singers are well able to spin a long, warm line in “Um Mitternacht”, but it is Stotijn who is more successful in inserting the words into this line.
Altogether, then, we have a highly original programme sung by an up-and-coming singer who can bear comparison with even the greatest lieder-singers. She is furthermore blessed by a pianist who seems to share her imagination and freedom of spirit. And, in a world where the majors are cutting costs in every possible way, Onyx give us the full product with complete texts and English translations. The excellent note by Joanna Wyld is also translated into French.
I would end by invoking the name of Janet Baker for another reason. About forty years ago, Saga issued an LP of lieder - now available on Regis - which proclaimed beyond any doubt that a great singer was in our midst. I venture to suggest that, forty years hence, people will be looking back on this first Onyx issue in the same way.
Christopher Howell    

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