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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Weimars Volkslied [6:49]
Pace non trovo [5:08]
Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen [4:06]
J’ai perdu ma force et ma vie [4:07]
Jeanne dArc au bűcher [8:48]
Sei still [3:31]
Le Juif errant [12:24]
Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh [3:52]
O lieb, solang du lieben kannst [6:16]
Du bist wie eine Blume [2:34]
Go not, Happy Day [3:46]
Weimars Toten Dithyramb [6:41]
Jared Schwartz (bass)
Mary Dibbern (piano)
rec. 2017, St Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral, Dallas, USA
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0441 [68:07]

Mary Dibbern tells us, in her outstanding booklet note, that Liszt actually set songs in six languages. A mere four of these are represented here – Hungarian and Russian are not, but we have seven items in German, three in French, and one each in English and Italian. It’s not only in a linguistic sense, though, that the Toccata disc offers us a broad conspectus of Liszt’s songs (one must be careful not to call them either Lieder or mélodies, since they are neither and both of those things). The earliest items date from the early 1840s and the latest from 1880, hence encompassing practically the whole of Liszt’s adult career – from his years as a touring virtuoso, through his Weimar period between 1848 and 1858, to his more reflective, restrained later phase. Not that the songs are presented here in chronological order: it makes more sense to order them according to musical logic, and in any event they “fall less into natural groupings than do those of any of the other great song composers… Rather, each is an example of a song written for a particular occasion or because a single poem inspired Liszt to set it to music. It is, then, the single song which must speak for itself” (Michael David Baron, quoted by Dibbern). That is, I think, spot-on.

The unifying thread of this album is that all twelve pieces are performed in a new edition for bass voice and piano prepared by Schwartz and Dibbern themselves. This enables the disc to break new ground in various ways: Dibbern tells us that one item (‘Weimars Volkslied’) is here receiving its first recording for any solo voice and piano; that this is only the second recording – and the first by a bass – of two further items (‘Le Juif errant’ and ‘Weimars Toten – Dithyrambe’); and that ‘Jeanne d’Arc au bűcher’, written for a mezzo, may well never have been performed, let alone recorded, before by any male singer. In truth not all of these are particularly strong works: ‘Le Juif errant’, with its 86 iterations of the word ‘toujours’, rather outstays its welcome; and the two Weimar numbers, both written for public occasions, are rather bombastic – Wagnerian, perhaps, in the wrong sense. The Joan of Arc scena, though, is very effective, both poignant and powerful; and Schwartz’s performance of it works perfectly well on its own terms. In truth I did not feel that any of the songs on the disc absolutely had to be or absolutely should not be sung by a bass voice; on that basis, if the effect of the new edition is to open up to this repertoire to a greater number of singers, that’s all to the good.

So what of Jared Schwartz as a singer? For Göran Forsling, who reviewed his first disc, of mélodies by Fauré (here), Schwartz is “is in many ways an expressive singer, and in the middle and upper part of his register he is sensitive and nuanced. Unfortunately, the lowest part of the voice is quite coarse, the tone often gritty and under pressure there is an annoying beat as well”. Rob Barnett, however, in assessing Schwartz’s enterprising second disc, of songs by Ange Flégier (review), admires an “impressively leonine steadiness” and “a noble sound which would go well also in French opera”. I suppose I fall somewhere between the two. First and foremost, Schwartz is a true bass, with a bottom C which, if not in the Kurt Moll class (whose is?), is impressively resonant. He also has a very wide range both of tessitura and of dynamics (which you certainly need for Liszt) and an obviously sound technique, with excellent breath control. If anything, pace Forsling, I slightly prefer his lower register, which doesn’t sound to me coarse or gritty, but rather imposing. I also don’t hear anything I would describe as a “beat”. On the other hand, pace Barnett, I don’t hear “leonine steadiness” either. Schwarz’s vibrato is a bit wide for my taste – though he’s by no means wobbly, and I found myself getting used to him pretty soon. Overall, I wouldn’t call his an essentially beautiful instrument or, given its register, a thrillingly dark one; but it’s a good voice nonetheless, well produced and more than fit for its present purpose.

Where I concur with both Forsling and Barnett, however, is in their appreciation of Schwartz’s depth and range of expression. These are detailed, very well thought through but also spontaneous-sounding performances – in which, by the way, Mary Dibbern emerges as every bit as fine a pianist as she is an annotator. In nearly 70 minutes of Liszt one certainly has to run the full gamut of emotions and indeed of musical styles; and Schwartz is able to do this. At times he is powerfully dramatic (as in ‘Le Juif errant’), at others smoothly lyrical (as in ‘O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst’ – or Liebestraum to you and me). He has sufficient intensity and emotional heft to do justice to those seriously sombre late songs like ‘J’ai perdu ma force et ma vie’. And he can also produce moments of great subtlety and gentleness, as for example in ‘Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’’, perhaps the single best performance on the disc.

What Schwartz is not, at least at this stage of his career, is a great linguist. He is fine with Tennyson in English, of course, though his pronunciation of “news” reveals him immediately to be a native of the United States. Such Italian as he gets to sing (in the wonderful Petrarch setting ‘Pace non trovo’) is OK, though the word printed in the booklet as “cheggio” (I beg) sounds rather different when he delivers it. His French is generally competent, but very plainly not that of a native speaker, and it’s rotten luck (given the extraordinary ubiquity of the word “toujours”) that the long “ou” sound is perhaps his weakest. It’s his German that worries me, though. You really shouldn’t misread “Siege” as “Seige” in an edition you yourself have prepared; and there are several sounds with which Schwartz quite seems regularly to have difficulty – most long vowels and the short ‘ü’, for example, which together would render the oft-repeated phrase “Weimars edles Fürstenhaus” even more of a trial to the native German-speaking listener than it is to me. Add to this some issues with producing the “ich” sound and certain of the juicy consonant clusters in which German notoriously specializes, and you have a weakness that – whilst very far from fatal – will materially diminish the pleasure of some listeners.

Fortunately, though, most potential buyers won’t be language obsessives in the way that I’m afraid I am – and I would hate to give the impression that my overall view of the disc is a negative one. On the contrary, both Schwartz and Dibbern emerge as serious, highly intelligent and sophisticated artists of no little resource and versatility. And, whilst I suppose their CD is likely to appeal most to a relatively specialized audience, they have done Liszt and lovers of his songs a very considerable service in opening him up to all basses, present and future.

Nigel Harris

 

 



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