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Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Die schöne Müllerin, D795 (1823) [65:13];
Schwanengesang, D957 (1828) [52:40]
Lieder, Op. 80 (1826): No. 1 Der Wanderer an den Mond [2:35]; No. 2 Das Zügenglöcklein [5:26]; No. 3 Im Freien [5:32]
Winterreise, D911 (1827) [75:16]
Olaf Bär (baritone), Geoffrey Parsons (piano)
rec. 16-20 June 1986, Lukaskirche, Dresden (Die schöne Müllerin); August 1989, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Schwanengesang; Lieder Op. 80); December 1988 (Winterreise). DDD
EMI CLASSICS 50999 5009342 7 [3 CDs: 66:13 + 66:11 + 75:16]

Olaf Bär will turn fifty in December (2007). He can look back on an immensely successful career, covering church music and opera as well as Lieder. Born in Dresden in East Germany he joined the famous Dresdner Kreutzchor at the age of nine, quickly advancing to soloist. He made his recording debut in 1970 as one of the three boys in Die Zauberflöte. Among those three soloists can also be mentioned another former member of the same choir, Peter Schreier as Tamino. Helen Donath was Pamina. Bär took part in twelve complete opera projects, the latest as Kurwenal in the famous EMI recording of Tristan und Isolde with Placido Domingo and Nina Stemme. It is however as a Lieder singer that he has become best known. When in the mid-1980s EMI started issuing a steady stream of recordings with Geoffrey Parsons, Bär was hailed as the natural heir to the icons Fischer-Dieskau and Prey. He was a fully-fledged Lieder artist when he debuted with Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Liederkreis in 1985. The next year came Die schöne Müllerin, followed within a couple of years by Winterreise and Schwanengesang. All three cycles must count among the best versions ever committed to disc. It would be close to criminal not at the very least to have heard them.
When listening to Die schöne Müllerin the first thing one notices is the total naturalness of the singing. Bär lets the music speak without undue accenting and word-pointing. He and Geoffrey Parsons scrupulously follow the many dynamic markings in the score; the tempo markings are also very well judged. Take the first song, Das Wandern, which some singers love to run through. But it is about walking and the marking is Mässig geschwind, (moderately fast) which is exactly the way they do it. Bär’s youthful timbre, the lightness and the sheer beauty of the singing is also a pleasure to hear. While listening I made copious notes. Der Neugierige (CD1 tr. 6) should be mentioned for the sensitive legato singing as should the nervous eagerness of Ungeduld (CD1 tr. 7) - something to savour. Then I should mention the delicate and intimate Morgengruss (CD1 tr. 8). His enunciation of the texts is superb – again ‘natural’ is a keyword – listen to Tränenregen (CD1 tr. 10). He colours the voice to convey his ‘Liebespain’ in Pause (CD1 tr. 12). This is Lieder singing of the utmost sensitivity. Fischer-Dieskau, especially his DG version with Gerald Moore, will never be redundant. Of recent recordings Jan Kobow’s (see review) is superb but Olaf Bär is definitely a top ranking contender.
The same can be said of his reading of Schwanengesang which with its darker colours and more dramatic contents is in many ways even more testing. This is not a cycle in the normal sense of the word and Schubert never published the songs – that was done after his death by Tobias Haslinger. Most singers stick to his published order with the seven Rellstab songs followed by the six by Heine and with Seidl’s Die Taubenpost as a kind of encore. Bär sings the Rellstab songs as published but reshuffles the Heine group. As in Die schöne Müllerin the two musicians are very careful with dynamics and tempos. In dramatic songs like Aufenthalt, Der Doppelgänger and the powerful Der Atlas Bär sings with an intensity and a great deal of steel in the voice. Having heard the mainly lyrical Schöne Müllerin one would never believe this was within Bär’s compass. While he lacks Fischer-Dieskau’s bass-baritone depth of tone he produces a leaner intensity that is just as effective. Any of these songs would be ideal to present to a young singer as an interpretative model. As a ‘filler’ to CD 2 we get the three Lieder Op. 80 in wonderful readings.
I bought his Winterreise when it was new and was deeply impressed by the beauty, the naturalness, the nuance, the choice of tempo for each song and – not least – the teamwork between pianist and singer. They seemed like twin souls, spontaneously reacting identically in every specific moment. Of course they are deeply considered readings but the effect is spontaneous. The beauty of Der Lindenbaum, the anxiety of Die Wetterfahne, the lightness of Frühlingstraum, the concentration of Das Wirtshaus and the simplicity and drained tone of Der Leiermann – all of this seemed to surpass anything I had heard before. Forced to choose one version of this cycle I would probably in the last resort pick this one but I couldn’t live without a couple of DF-D recordings: the ones with Barenboim and Gerald Moore, both on DG. Nor would I be prepared to part from Tom Krause on Finlandia and Hans Hotter on EMI with Gerald Moore. In addition there are a number of other recordings that I would like to play from time to time.
For those who, like me, missed some of these readings the first time around this is a golden opportunity to set things right. For those who have no recordings of these songs – horrible thought! – this is a golden opportunity to set things right. For those who have been contemplating buying a really valuable Christmas present to a young Schubert-lover, this is a golden opportunity. For the last mentioned category the box needs a complement in the shape of texts and translations or, better still, a volume with the music which can be purchased for less than a tenner in any well-stocked music shop.
Göran Forsling


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