Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
1. Liebestreu, op. 3, Nr. 1 [2:02]
2. Meine Lieder, op. 106 Nr. 4 [1:43]
3. An eine Äolsharfe, op. 19 Nr. 5 [3:49]
4. Auf dem Kirchhofe, op. 105 Nr. 4 [2:33]
5. Über die Heide, op. 86 Nr. 4 [1:44]
6. Im Garten am Seegestade, op. 70 Nr. 1 [2:14]
7. Verzagen, op. 72 Nr. 4 [2:29]
8. Es hing der Reif, op. 106 Nr. 3 [2:12]
9. Regenlied [1:22]
10. O kühler Wald, op. 72 Nr. 3 [1:59]
11. Wehe, so willst du mich wieder, Op. 32 Nr. 5 [1:13]
12. Gestillte Sehnsucht, op. 91 Nr. 1 [6:11]*
13. Geistliches Wiegenlied, op. 91 Nr. 2 [6:17]*
14. Mädchenlied, op. 107 Nr. 5 [1:37]
15. Die Mainacht, op. 43 Nr. 2 [3:26]
16. Ständchen, op. 106 Nr. 1 [1:37]
17. In stiller Nacht [2:20]
18. Von ewiger Liebe, op. 43 Nr. 1 [4:24]
Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo)
*Thomas Riebel (viola)
Irwin Gage (piano)
rec. no details supplied
ACANTA 233493 [51:29]
This disc is a reissue of a previously recorded recital, and in view of the quality that is on offer we should be very grateful for it. Brigitte Fassbaender is, for my money, one of the finest German mezzos of the post-war era. Everything I have heard her sing has been remarkable because of the rich expressiveness of her voice. That’s a quality that all great lieder singers have, but Fassbaender had something extra special, a soulful depth to her voice that few singers of any register could challenge. There is an almost implausible richness to her voice; every note seems to drip with emotion and meaning from a voice that is suffused with colour and expressivity. Her opera recordings are all special events, and a song recital from her has the ability to drag the listener through the emotional mill or to lift them out of themselves in a way that makes the experience unforgettable.
In many ways she was ideally suited to the songs of Brahms. The composer’s style of writing is more muscular and large-scale than that of his predecessors, Schubert and Schumann, and the densely poetic nature of his writing is just right for someone of Fassbaender’s gifts. Nearly all of the poems which feature on this recital are in some way equivocal, all is not as it at first seems: hope, when it is initially expressed, is often snatched away and initial despair can turn to resignation or acceptance. Fassbaender has the ability to take the listener on an intense emotional journey through each song. Take Auf dem Kirchhofe, for example, which begins with violent storms assailing the graveyard, but ends with transcendent hope of rising to immortal life beyond the storms of this world. Fassbaender changes the colour of her voice from the initial darkness of the storm through to the hopeful light of the ending, just as do the music and the poetry. Likewise, her interpretation of Meine Lieder is richly beautiful, but shot through with bittersweet longing; with Fassbaender emotions are never simple!
The quality of her word painting is exceptional. In Verzagen, for example, listen to the wonderful emotion on “Was weinest du?” or the understated sadness of Mädchenlied. Individual details are consistently highlighted, as well as the big sweep of songs like Ständchen, probably the only jolly song on the disc, but even this is invested with richness and depth by the power of Fassbaender’s voice. She is partnered by an accompanist of equal sensitivity in Irwin Gage, whose pianism is fully attuned to Brahms’ descriptive style: listen, for example, to the rolling waves at the beginning of Verzagen or the raindrops at the beginning of Regenlied. Throughout he brings superb tonal shading to the piano line, buoying up Fassbaender’s vocal line as a true partner should.
I could go on praising the quality of each song in turn, but I’ll save special mention for the two viola songs. Brahms adds a solo viola to Gestillte Sehnsucht and Geistliches Wiegenlied, a wonderful inspiration. This extra line gives to both these songs a layer of richness and splendour that elevates them to the level of something unique. For the Geistliches Wiegenlied the viola picks out the line of a carol that then undulates around the vocal line, while it adds an extra, chocolaty layer of sweetness to the atmosphere of Gestillte Sehnsucht which makes it one of the finest songs on the disc.
So far so good, but duty compels me to point out some of the problems of packaging. The front cover makes it clear that this is a re-release, but Acanta have given no details of the original recording. 1982 is alluded to in the depths of the small print, but this is not confirmed and no location is given. This lack of information about the recording’s genesis is annoying, and it would have been good to know more about how and why Acanta have decided to re-release it in this manner. More seriously, texts are provided, but the English translation is very weak. It’s in the archaic rhyming style which would have allowed the songs to be sung in English to the same metre, but this means you sacrifice accuracy and I found this irritating. Worse, the translations exist as a bunch at the back of the booklet: there is no parallel printing of English and German, so I found myself flicking between the two in a way that made me quickly lose patience. These things may not bother you, but for me they weaken what would otherwise be flawless and highly recommendable.
Simon Thompson 

Fassbaender had something extra special.