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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Songs of Love and Death
Heimliche Aufforderung, Op. 27, No. 3 (1894) [3:39]
O wärst du mein, Op. 26, No. 2 (1891) [2:58]
Geduld, Op. 10, No. 5 (1885) [5:08]
Hoffen und wieder verzagen, Op. 19, No. 5 [3:12]
Zueignung, Op. 10, No. 1 (1885) [1:54]
Begegnung, TrV 98 (1880) [1:48]
Rote Rosen, TrV 119 (1883) [2:23]
Die Verschwiegenen, Op. 10, No. 6 (1885) [1:06]
Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten, Op. 19, No. 4 (1888) [2:02]
Die Georgine, Op. 10, No. 4 (1885) [3:58]
Die Zeitlose, Op.10, No. 7 (1885) [1:41]
Nichts, Op.10, No.2 (1885) [1:41]
Ich liebe dich, Op. 37, No. 2 (1898) [2:15]
Nachtgang, Op. 29, No. 3 (1895) [3:01]
Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden, Op. 21, No. 3 (1888) [1:44]
Befreit, Op. 39, No. 4 (1898) [5:24]
Aus den Liedern der Trauer, Op. 15, No. 4 (1886) [1:59]
Lob des Leidens, Op. 15, No. 3 (1886) [2:35]
Mein Herz ist stumm, mein Herz ist kalt, Op. 19, No. 6 (1888) [3:07]
Nebel, TrV 65 (1878) [2:22]
Allerseelen, Op. 10, No. 8 (1885) [3:19]
Ruhe, meine Seele, Op. 27, No. 1 (1894) [4:15]
Hedwig Fassbender (mezzo), Hilko Dumno (piano)
rec. 25-27 July 2006, Tonstudio Teije van Geest, Sandhausen, Germany
Online texts available in German and English*
NAXOS 8.570297 [61:33]

Strauss’s Alpine climb must seem a gentle stroll compared with the heights singers must scale in these songs. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is just one of a select few to reach the top, although lieder lovers are divided about the methods she uses to get there. And there are others – Brigitte Fassbaender, Soile Isokoski, Dame Felicity Lott, Renée Fleming and Jessye Norman spring to mind. As for the men there’s always Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with the incomparable Gerald Moore.

To even get through the foothills mezzo Hedwig Fassbender needs to be very accomplished indeed. Even though she started out as a pianist as a singer she has sung many operatic roles in Europe, among them Marguerite (Faust), Judith (Bluebeard), Marie (Wozzeck) and the Marschallin (Rosenkavalier), not to mention heavyweight Wagner (Fricka and Isolde). Her partner on this particular outing is pianist and teacher Hilko Dumno.

This collection is framed by two Op. 27 songs, Heimliche Aufforderung (‘Secret Invitation’) and Ruhe, meine Seele (‘Rest my soul’) the first longing for a night-time tryst, the second for inner peace. Fassbender’s voice simply lacks colour and tonal shading in the Mackay setting, with little sign of real eagerness or anticipation in ‘du wunderbare, ersehnte Nacht’. In Ruhe, meine Seele, though, her quieter, more inward singing sounds rather better, although her tone is not particularly attractive under pressure. That said her diction is clear enough and Dumno proves a suitably sympathetic accompanist.

But is mere competence enough in this repertoire? Vocally Fassbender does not have the ease and amplitude of, say, Jessye Norman, or the line, light and shade of Schwarzkopf. Whatever your preferences these singers bring something indefinably special to this music, illuminating the texts in a way Fassbender can’t quite manage. And although a large voice is not a prerequisite it would help here, as the piano is rather too prominent at times.

The Lenau settings of Op. 26 are of roughly the same vintage, and O wärst du Mein!  (‘O if you were mine!’) has a real sense of longing. Fassbender’s habit of lingering over certain words as if to emphasise their meaning could become tedious over time, but then we’re still in the undergrowth here, the summit a very long way off.

The early Op. 10 settings are probably the most Schubertian of Strauss’s songs, with some lovely, limpid piano writing in Geduld (‘Patience’). What troubles me most about Fassbender’s light mezzo is that it can sound strained even under mild pressure, although she manages the relatively short Verschwiegenen (‘The Confidantes’) easily enough. There are a few problems in Zueignung (‘Dedication’) as well, notably a strange ‘gear change’ at 1:18, while the phrasing of Nichts (‘Nothing’) is just too generalised for my tastes. And in Die Georgine Dumno makes the delightful accompaniment sound curiously lumpen. As always, though, I wanted rather more character from the voice which, to be fair, Fassbender does deliver in Die Zeitlose (‘The Meadow Saffron’). And in Allerseelen (‘All Souls’) Dumno makes amends with some particularly mellifluous playing; for her part Fassbender manages to distil something of  the song’s strange, melancholic mood.

Of the very early songs, Nebel (‘Mist’) was written when Strauss was just 14. It’s a remarkably assured piece of juvenilia, whose more subdued, reflective nature plays to Fassbender’s vocal strengths. Written two years later Begegnung (‘Meeting’) is altogether brighter and more animated and both singer and pianist readily respond to its naïve charm. These qualities are also reflected in Rote Rosen (‘Red Roses’), dedicated to Strauss’s girlfriend of the moment. Once again Dumno and Fassbender seem to have the measure of this beguiling music.

The Friedrich settings of Op. 15 – Lob des Leidens (‘Praise of Suffering’) and Aus den Liedern der Trauer (‘From Songs of the Mourner’) – are more harmonically assured and demand more from the singer in terms of vocal and emotional range. Predictably Fassbender’s voice hardens in the more exposed writing but elsewhere she is generally sensitive to the nuances of the text.

Schack’s Lotosblatter (‘Lotus Leaves’) form the basis of Op. 19. The range of Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten (‘How should we keep it secret’) gives the singer something of a workout, but Fassbender seems much more comfortable with Hoffen und wieder verzagen (‘Hoping and despairing again’). She tackles the taxing passages rather well and her diction is beautifully clear in the sombre Mein Herz ist stumm, mein Herz ist kalt (‘My heart is silent, my heart is cold’).

Overall, the Op. 19 songs and the single Op. 21 – Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden (‘Ah, love, I must leave you now’) – are among the most satisfying on the disc. True, the summit may still be some way off but at least we’re out of the troublesome thickets and advancing towards the snowline, The Felix Dahn setting O wärst du mein (‘O if you were mine’) is most interesting for its strange, dark harmonies; unfortunately Fassbender has another of those awkward ‘gear changes’ at 1:50, which rather spoilt the song for me.

As so often Strauss can’t resist a little night music. The Op. 29 Nachtgang (‘Night walk’) has a magical piano part and I found myself focusing on that rather than the vocal line, as I am wont to do when listening to Gerald Moore playing Schubert. But in Ich liebe dich (‘I love you’), Strauss’s pledge of love and loyalty to his wife Pauline, it is the voice that demands all one’s attention. Fassbender sings with commendable spirit and projects her voice very well, so much so that I was even willing to forgive her that hint of squall at the end.

With Op. 39 and Strauss’s setting of Dehmel’s Befreit (‘Free’) we are as close to the summit as we’re going to get. At more than five minutes it is one of the longest songs on the disc. It has a wonderful, rippling accompaniment and Fassbender certainly relishes the long vocal lines. Even the occasional unsteadiness – and yes, a distracting ‘gear change’ at 4:24 – can’t spoil what is one of Strauss’s most haunting songs. Indeed, it seems to inhabit the same serene, valedictory world of the Four Last Songs.

Regrettably this recital doesn’t reach that elusive summit, which is a pity as there are moments when Fassbender and Dumno give a hint of what might have been. However you like your Strauss there are some compelling interpretations on record that will always be hard to beat. On its own terms and at budget price this disc might just be worth acquiring, but for depth of insight, characterisation and glorious, impassioned singing you must look elsewhere. 

Dan Morgan

see also Review by Göran Forsling December BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

*The texts can be downloaded from here as a PDF file (nine pages in all). The translations are workmanlike but not always accurate. Still, they should suffice as an introduction to these songs. 





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