Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
Spanisches Liederspiel Op. 74 [26:02] Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897)
Liebeslieder-Walzer Op. 52 [25:02]
Edith Mathis (soprano)
Brigitte Fassbaender (alto)
Peter Schreier (tenor)
Walter Berry (bass)
Paul Schilhawsky (piano: Brahms)
Erik Werba (piano: Schumann)
rec. live, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 25 August 1974 ORFEO C953181B [51:02]
1848 was Schumann’s Lieder year, when most of his song cycles and the best of his individual songs came into being. But he continued to write songs, although not as intensively as before. Ein Spanisches Liederspiel, composed in six days in March 1849, is also a cyclic work, inspired by Goethe, who envisaged a kind of Singspiel, where spoken dialogue and songs united into a continuous story. Schumann wrote several works of this kind, of which the Spanisches Liederspiel is the best known. This doesn’t imply that it is well known in the sense that Dichterliebe, Frauenliebe- und Leben and the two Liederkreis are. I once owned a BIS LP from the 1970s with four Swedish singers – including tenor Gösta Winbergh early in his illustrious career – but though the singing was good I never quite came to terms with it, and when I gave away large portions of my LP collection, that record also changed owners – and I never missed it. Maybe it was the form in itself that alienated me from it, maybe the songs themselves that I found less inspired than many others – although Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in his book on Schumann’s vocal works stated that it is “one of the most agreeable from Schumann’s pen”. Another reason might be that I, as an opera lover, missed the dialogue, and perhaps the orchestra – Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail is a Singspiel. There may be other factors as well. Graham Johnson, another encyclopedic Lieder connoisseur, says in his comments to the Hyperion Schumann cycle, that the original version of the work was longer and Schumann thought, after the first performance, that “the cycle needed tightening up”. Consequently he cut two solo songs, one for alto, Hoch, hoch sind die Berge (number IV in the original cycle of XII) and one for bass, Flutenreicher Ebro (originally number VI). Both were later included in Spanische Liebeslieder. He also cut Der Contrabandiste (originally number X) since he found that it “isn’t, strictly speaking, part of the action”. However, he got separation anxiety and published it as an appendix to the work. Cutting the songs mentioned was not only gain, since it lessened the harmonic and dramatic contrasts in a couple of places. I quote Graham Johnson again: “In cutting song IV, songs III and V are adjacent and both in the key of G minor, which seems a pity in an otherwise tonally resourceful plan; separating two G minor songs with a number in the relative major had been a good idea. The loss of the gentle and mellifluous Flutenreicher Ebro (VI) removed a bridge between the very different moods of the deeply serious duet In der Nacht and the flippant Es ist verrathen. The excision of Der Contrabandiste deprives the cycle of a change of tempo resulting in the rather similar moods of IX and XI.”
Of course it would have been interesting to hear the whole Liederspiel in the original version, and it wouldn’t add more than 7 minutes to playing time, i.e. a total length of less than 35 minutes. On the present live recording from the Salzburg Festival in 1974 we hear four of the great German speaking singers of their generation, all of them born in the 1930s (Berry actually in 1929) and thus at the height of their powers. Individually they are, as expected, excellent but since Brigitte Fassbaender and Peter Schreier are the only ones allotted solos (one each, the rest are ensembles: five duets and two quartets) the quality of the concerted singing is dependant of how well the voices mix and they don’t. It’s not a matter of different ideas of pitch – everybody sings in tune – but the timbres don’t go well together. This is not unique. You can hear the phenomenon very often in the opera houses and we have got used to it and don’t react to it. It’s rather the other way round: when two voices blend exceptionally well we make a note of it. In the recital room, with only a pianist to “cover” the voices, the weaknesses become more palpable. But the singing here is not bad, it’s only less than ideal as concerted singing. And I have a feeling that all four enjoy doing this.
The same pros and cons also concern the Brahms waltzes. They are entertaining and beautiful pieces in a folksong style, inspired to some extent by Schubert’s and his own waltzes Op. 39, the latter were composed for piano four hands, just as the Liebeslieder Walzer Op. 52 and the sequel Neue Liebeslieder Walzer Op. 65. They can be performed – as here – with one voice per part or several voices per part. Personally I usually prefer the choral settings, which even out the discrepancies between the timbres of the individual voices and creates a more homogenous sound. But whichever version one chooses one finds Brahms at his most charming. Behind his quite stern appearance – in particular from his last few years – there obviously was a milder and more joyous personality that is uncovered here and in the Hungarian Dances, also originally for piano four hands. He lovingly called them “my Gypsy children”.
There is an emotional friendship between the two works on this disc, which makes them sit comfortably side by side – or more literally one after the other – on the stage of the Grosses Festspielhaus. Whether this venue with its enormous stage, 300 ft. wide, and its auditorium seating 2,179 listeners, is the best place to perform these rather intimate songs, is a moot point. As recorded here the sound is spacious but clear and agreeable and the performances professional and inspired. The historical value is undeniable and quite apart from the musical value the disc should be a welcome souvenir for those who were there 45 years ago.
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