Hyperion have an enviable back catalogue to draw on for their
Helios reissues series. One of the most interesting and consistently
accomplished performers in their roster is Graham Johnson. Throughout
the 1990s, Johnson produced a steady stream of impressive lieder
recordings, and the prospect of their reappearing at budget
price is tantalising indeed.
Astute collaboration choices are the secret of Johnson's success,
and the singers he has chosen for the Italienisches Liederbuch
could hardly be bettered. True, the combination is a strange
one - a venerable, and certainly mature, German tenor, with
a younger, but no less accomplished English soprano. But all
the songs are underpinned by Johnson's sympathetic and always
distinctive accompaniment, maintaining a solid, coherent basis
for the cycle.
Felicity Lott takes a liberal approach to the interpretation
of her songs. Guttural vowels towards the bottom of the register
often give her tone a rich, earthy quality. And she's not above
putting in heavy rubato slides when the more sensuous passages
allow. But these are occasional effects, and while her tone
is always well supported, the overall impression is of bounce
and agility. Listen, for example, to her rendition of 'Nein,
junger Herr ...', there is some quite extreme legato here, and
it's saucy too, verging at times on Kurt Weill, but the short
song is carried by the lightness and bounce of Lott's tone.
By 1994, Peter Schreier was in his late 50s, and that certainly
shows in his performance here. In general his voice is still
well supported, and there is a valuable burnished quality that
is a compensation of age. But there are moments of frailty as
well. The forte conclusions to many of the songs, 'Ein Ständchen
...' for example, challenge his voice and threaten the rounded
timbre. In some of the songs, such as 'Ich leiss mir sagen ...'
his voice sounds like it is on the very edge of its comfort
zone, a product of physical frailty I think, but used to valuable
artistic ends. Then there are more delicate songs, such as 'Geselle,
woll'n wir uns ...' where we are returned to the Schreier of
the Moore and Richter collaborations of the 1960s and 1970s;
the years have clearly been kinder to the singer's piano tone.
My complaints are mild though, and the benefit of experience,
especially in terms of interpretation come close to compensating
for any defects of tone. I should also add that his intonation
is spot-on throughout, and his phrasing is masterly.
Graham Johnson is not a shy accompanist, but then neither does
he vie for the limelight. There is a luminosity to his tone
that energises each of the songs. The way that he phrases in
sympathy with the singers is impressive, as is his ability to
maintain the clarity of the accompanying lines without bringing
any of them to the fore. The church acoustic seems a curious
choice for this repertoire, but it is not unduly resonant, and
the roundness that it brings to the sound, especially to the
piano upper register is ideal.
Hugo Wolf was a troubled soul, and even in this, one of the
lighter of his cycles, you are never far from the next dark
cloud. The success of this interpretation lies in the performers'
ability to juggle those two sides. We are not talking about
Winterreise here, so it is just as well that all those
darker emotions remain firmly in the background for most of
the time. It is a disc of expressive and intimate Wolf songs,
performed by consummate performers and recorded to the highest
audio standards you could want. Well worth a listen.