I am a firm supporter of Pristine’s Ambient Stereo historical recordings catalogue and have enthusiastically welcomed almost everything of theirs that I have had the pleasure to review. I am, however, puzzled by their decision to remaster and issue these two recordings. I understand that they are rare but cannot in all honesty claim that either really merits consideration alongside the many other far more recommendable versions, even if one restricts the field to meritorious historical accounts. I am certainly not deterred by the primitive sound, being used to listening to vintage recordings, although it remains true that, despite being recorded in rather different acoustics, the pianos in both are very distant. Even Pristine have been able to do little about the obtrusive surface noise on the 78s, especially in the Schumann.
However, it is Schwanengesang which is particularly unattractive, being sung by a baritone previously unknown to me and frankly to whom I have no desire to listen again. The praise quoted from a 1930 “Gramophone” review is mystifying, although the observation meant as a compliment that the singer’s style is “free of undue emotionalism” I would adduce as confirmation of my own that Hans Duhan hardly bothers to interpret the songs at all. He scoops on almost every note, has little allure in his dry, nasal tone, phrases in lumpen fashion and is hindered by a laboured vibrato; indeed I think his by far the worst version of these wonderful songs that has ever come my way. To take but one example, that most lilting of lieder Taubenpost has hardly any lilt in it at all and tempi in general tend towards the lugubrious. His photograph adapted on the cover artwork has the unfortunate aspect of his appearing drunk and his singing does nothing to mitigate that impression.
The Schumann cycle by Thom Denijs is considerably better by virtue of the singer having a much more attractive voice. His interpretation has more life and variety but he too gives us nothing special and must take a distant second place to more rightly celebrated baritone interpreters of his era such as Gerhard Hüsch and Charles Panzéra. Even here, a certain vocal frailty is evident in the strain of his top notes. He fails to take the optional but, to my mind, essential, top A at the climax of “Ich grolle nicht”.
I am sorry that I am unable to welcome this issue of two seminal song cycles but there are much better alternatives available to the collector of historical recordings.