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Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben - A survey of the recordings By Ralph Moore
If ever a celebrated song cycle jarred with the sensibilities of the modern Zeitgeist, this is it, insofar as the poems by Franco-German aristocrat Adelbert von Chamisso, written a decade before Schumann took them as his texts are, according to contemporary attitudes, patronising, saccharine, and even offensive in their depiction of the “submissive little woman”. Thus, the imaginary bride humbly dedicates herself to serving and making obeisance to her Master – “in Demut laß mich verneigen dem Herren mein” - then tells him off for being so “pitiless” as to die on her. It does not help that the poet had the temerity to attempt to write from a woman’s point of view without having the subtle gift of recreating a woman’s psyche authentically in the way Shakespeare could – unless, of course Shakespeare was actually a woman – but that’s another debate…
On the other hand, we must acknowledge that writing from that perspective was innovative and rather daring; simply writing poetry about a woman’s feelings including references to pregnancy and breast-feeding was quite progressive for its day. Another “mitigating factor” is that the reason for the woman’s pathetic adulation could lie in the implication that she is of a lower social status than her beloved and initially harbours no realistic hope of her devotion being reciprocated – hence her shocked disbelief when he proposes. Ultimately, it is probably otiose to apply the mores and manners of our age to a minor work of art almost two hundred years old; the listener must try to banish the kind of male egotism which permitted von Chamisso to envisage a scenario where a naïve young woman can first see her suitor only as a demigod, and concentrate upon the beauty and variety of Schumann’s music. There is no denying that much of his inspiration must have derived from the fact that he composed Op. 42 in the same year, 1840, his so-called “Year of Song”, when, at thirty years old, he finally won the legal right to wed the twenty-one-year-old Clara in spite of her domineering father forbidding their marriage. Schumann wrote the songs in a white heat over two days and in its early years, at least, before the onset of Schumann’s mental illness – theirs was a mutually passionate and blissful union.
A friend daringly maintains – or at least proposes - that Schumann was a greater composer of Lieder cycles than Schubert. I do not agree, but certainly Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Love and Life) and Dichterliebe are monuments to the genre and mark an advance upon Schubert both in content and in how the vocal line is not so closely wedded to the piano accompaniment, but instead both the singer and the pianist independently create emotional effects and moods. Like two song cycles I have recently surveyed, Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, Frauenliebe lasts only abut twenty minutes yet encompasses a complete narrative from the rapture of first love, through engagement, marriage, childbirth and the grief of loss when the husband dies. The singer must thus credibly move from being a young woman who scarcely believes that her admiration will ever be reciprocated to being a bereaved widow. Despite the progression in events, the circular nature of the cycle is reinforced by the way Schumann uses the same melody to open and close it, albeit transformed by being in a very different context. Interestingly, Schumann perhaps showed good dramatic discernment by opting not to set the ninth poem in von Chamisso’s sequence, in which the elderly widow speaks words of wisdom to her granddaughter. Instead, the cycle ends on a note of desolation similar to that of Winterreise or Die schöne Müllerin; a sense of finality obtains, with no hint of continuity or renewal.
There is a potential problem with this cycle being sung by deeper, heavier voices, in that too matronly a tone compromises the sweet innocence of the first three songs but the singer must also develop into the wife, mother and widow, which implies a weightier demeanour.
As with all great song cycles, it has attracted the finest singers regardless of any misgivings about its lyrics. Even if mezzos have occasionally crossed the barricades and successfully sung Schubert song cycles written ostensibly for the male voice, its narrative stance surely precludes it from being sung by a male voice; that would simply be perverse. Most of the thirty-three recordings below feature mezzo-sopranos or altos but dramatic sopranos, sopranos Falcon and regular lyric sopranos can sing it as long as they have sufficient warmth of tone to accommodate the lower tessitura. A few singers transpose some songs up to suit their voices; for example, Janet Baker puts up both the third and fourth song a full tone and Kathleen Ferrier, despite being a true alto, puts up the whole cycle by a semitone. By contrast, that most versatile of sopranos, Lotte Lehmann transposes down by a semitone only that most famous song, "Du Ring an meinem Finger". It doesn't much matter, but it is interesting to make comparisons.
As ever, I have not covered every single recording of such a popular piece – there must be well over fifty, perhaps more – but I have reviewed here in chronological order a full cross-section of forty recordings, only a few of which carry the “caveat emptor” warning.
Lotte Lehmann made three recordings, the first as early as 1928. She sings beautifully, in her prime, but the sound is too primitive for anyone but the enthusiast for historical versions and she is accompanied by an old “salon orchestra” which sounds altogether wrong, so I am not reviewing here as such, beyond mentioning it in passing. There are, however, two more options:
Lotte Lehmann (soprano); Bruno Walter (piano) 1941 Naxos; Sony (studio; mono)
My colleagues Jonathan Woolf and Göran Forsling have both reviewed this admiringly, each with a few mild reservations, with which I wholly agree and I refer you with confidence to both their reviews for amplification of my response.
Of Lehmann’s three recordings, this is the one in best sound, being a studio account made thirteen years after the first with better technology. As with the live recording made with Walter five years later, we can hear that being here in her early fifties she is not in silvery, youthful voice, but it is still a fine, flexible, ductile instrument, flickering with passion and capable of great warmth and tenderness. Intonation and phrasing are masterly and of course her command of the text is absolute and she enunciates with pellucid diction. These are not lingering, indulgent interpretations; both the singing and pianism are direct and unsentimental but, to paraphrase from Beethoven, they “go straight to the heart”
Walter’s accompaniment is a bit stiff and pedantic, but not damagingly so, and this being a studio recording, he makes fewer slips.
* * * *
The next three recordings, including Lehmann’s final recording, are separately available but also collected in a bargain compilation on the Music & Arts label and all reviewed by Jonathan Woolf here. I find myself in broad agreement with him regarding all three, differing only over our responses to Lehmann.
Lotte Lehmann (soprano); Paul Ulanowsky (piano); 1946 Music & Arts (live; mono)
This live recital is in the New York Town Hall in New York is in rather cavernous sound with some swish and crackle but it has been well restored so remains very listenable. Lehmann’s “very intimate, portamento-laden style” is certainly dated but I greatly enjoy her eloquence with the text and her vocal quality comes through clearly. While this is clearly the mature sound of a singer in her late fifties, I don’t agree with Jon that she is “well past her best by this point”; she still has a large, rounded, beautifully even voice whose expressive portamenti are hardly out of place. She sounds a tad out of breath in “An meinem Herzen” but her word-painting bears the mark of a great artist and her lower register is intact, lending gravitas and depth of emotion.
Paul Ulanowsky’s pianism is sensitive and accommodating to Lehmann’s rubato and freedom with bar lines.
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto); Bruno Walter (piano); 1949 Music & Arts (live; mono)
The sound here is distant and reverberant but Ferrier’s unmistakable voice rings out appealingly. These are swift, almost febrile accounts of the first two songs; Ferrier sounds released and impassioned; she has clearly been exhaustively coached by her mentor. Despite the weight of her sound, she is capable of great tenderness and delicacy, especially in “Süßer Freund”. Walter’s pianism is hardly above reproach, being a bit leaden and clumsy in arts, with some mistakes, but it is of course ideal in spirit. In the end, we are simply listening across the years to a beautiful voice and sonic or technical deficiencies matter little. This will not be a first choice by reason of those deficiencies but for fans of both great artists this is highly desirable. Marian Anderson (contralto); Franz Rupp (piano); 1950 Music & Arts (studio; mono)
I quote Jonathan, as I agree: “Marian Anderson’s studio recording comes as balm after the dingy sound accorded Lehmann. Anderson is by far the more stoic, occasionally statuesque Schumann interpreter, less inclined to wear emotions on her sleeve, but possessing a powerful interior introspective quality – and that voice is heard in fine estate.”
I would only say that I find her quite demonstrative in the final song; dignified, yes, but deeply pained and melancholy, exploiting the inky depths of her lower register. She has a big, rich, husky sound but not unwieldy – excellent little ornamental turns in “Er der Herrlichste von allen”. Sometimes her fast vibrato mutates into a tremolo but that adds vibrancy and even a sense of ecstasy to that same song. Her dark, Erda-sound will not appeal to everyone, especially those who favour a more girlish timbre and demeanour but on its own terms this is superb, and the mono sound is no barrier to enjoyment. Her German enunciation is superb and Rupp’s accompaniment very lively and soulful by turns.
* * * * Elisabeth Schumann (soprano); Gerald Moore (piano); 1949 EMI/Warner (studio; mono)
Admired, respected and beloved artist though she was, it must be said that Elisabeth Schumann made this recording too late in career. She was already in her early 60’s here and had not been able to preserve her voice as successfully as her exact contemporary Lotte Lehmann; she had lost the pristine silvery quality of her soprano and it emerges here as quavery, effortful and elderly-sounding and without bloom. It is, in fact embarrassing and unworthy. Her manner, too, as if to try to compensate, is saccharine, with too much swooping and crooning. I wonder what was going through her distinguished pianist’s head.
This is one to compare with the similarly ill-advised return to the studio of her namesake Schwarzkopf (see below) and does not do justice to the memory of her art or the music. Don’t be tempted.
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto); John Newmark (piano); 1950 Decca; Naxos (studio; mono)
For Ferrier fans, the choice is between this studio recording and the live performance with Walter at the piano. Artistically, as one might expect, there isn’t so much difference between the two recordings but certainly, the sound here is much cleaner and brighter and Newmark’s pianism is both poetic and technically superior to Walter’s. Ferrier is, if anything, even more delicate and refined in her execution of the ornamental turns, profiting from the intimacy of the studio, meaning that she is able to fine her voice down more to evoke pathos as opposed to adopting the larger scale approach required for the stage. Yet she rises to tragic heights in the final song of mourning, her hooded, dusky timbre being ideally suited to such sentiments.
This is essential for her admirers.
Sena Jurinac (soprano); Franz Holetschek (piano); 1953 Westminster; Profil (studio; mono)
Jurinac’s soprano always had a warm timbre – she sang mezzo roles, too – and despite the remove inevitable in an old mono recording, she creates a real, breathing charcter of great charm and appeal. I love the way she lightens her velvety sound to find a pure, bell-like quality for the higher-flying passages. This is a restrained, aristocratic, even low-key account, relying upon her lovely legato and unfailingly beautiful tone. Her German diction is impeccable – not especially penetrating in regard to delivery of the words but always sensitive and intelligent. Given that this performance is such balm to the ear, it’s a pity that the piano accompaniment is pedestrian and sounds muddy.
Not a first choice, then, for reason of the sound and a certain detachment, but such a lovely piece of singing that I am loath to discount it. Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano); Gerald Moore (piano); 1959 EMI (studio; stereo)
Christa Ludwig’s distinctive, rounded mezzo-soprano is instantly recognisable, so full of personality that I find myself listening to her rather than Schumann, if you see what I mean. She is in her young vocal prime; this is a very generous voice with a rich lower register but she reins in its amplitude for the tender songs such as “Du Ring”. She exhibits her usual vocal control and care over the inflection of text are much in evidence and finds a deep, tragic note for the final song, intoning it in a bleak, almost vibrato-free keening except for the big phrases where her grief spills over, and concludes in a mesmerising mezza voce. That mood is compounded by Gerald Moore’s lovely, serene postlude. She hasn’t at her disposal quite the range of colours of her slightly younger cotemporary Janet Baker, who thereby has the edge for expressivity, but this is a grand piece of singing, enhanced by Moore’s incomparably sensitive, singing pianism – he is able to find a softer, more mellow tone than some accompanists.
The 50’s stereo sound is perfectly fine, if a little shallow.
This is yet another recording which offers everything these songs require, even if you have a personal preference for another singer. Irmgard Seefried (soprano); Erich Werba (piano); 1960 Orfeo; Deutsche Grammophon (live; mono)
This is a typically light, bright, passionate account from Seefried and makes a marked contrast between her clean, bird-like sound and that of the fruitier mezzos who tackle these songs, so you must be sure that this is the sound which suits your taste.
This is the personal favourite of my colleague Göran Forsling who compared it with Elina Garanča’s version (see below) in a review posted recently as I write. I refer to his affectionate and nostalgic assessment of its merits; he refers to its “vulnerable, frail and deeply moving, sometimes performed with a thin, almost childish tone”. For my part, I find her voice a little too hard and edgy with just a few signs of wear, a minor flaw exacerbated by the thin, live recording, but I do indeed respond to her alert management of the texts.
We are back in familiar territory insofar as your own response to this will all depend upon whether hers is the style of voice you find apt for the cycle. It is not my own preference but I readily concede its charms.
Lisa Della Casa (soprano); Sebastian Peschko (piano); 1962 Testament (studio; stereo)
Wholly unlike her contemporary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with whom she was often compared and shared a similar repertoire, Della Casa was often a “cool, straight” singer without mannerisms who relied primarily upon the silvery beauty of her voice to make an impact. In that regard, she is more aptly bracketed with sopranos like Seefried, Ameling and Mathis.
There are, however, a few technical issues here. Some thinness of tone and scratchiness on top notes could be attributable to distortion in the old master tape but her aspiration of the coloratura turns in “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” is unfortunate and just occasionally her tone turns over-breathy, unsteady and tremulous. These are not necessarily major flaws but must count against her in the grand scheme of things, for all that I love her voice.
Otherwise, she charts a credible and touching course through the eight songs, embracing all the moods from the passionate to the numb and bewildered, very ably and abetted by the liquid playing of pianist Sebastian Peschko.
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano); Martin Isepp (piano); 1965 Saga; Regis (studio; stereo)
Originally issued on LP by Saga, this is the recording whereby so many older collectors will have been introduced to this music. And for many, despite the plethora of successors and like so many of Janet Baker’s key recordings, it remains the ne plus ultra of versions. The plangent freshness of Baker’s youthful mezzo provides the vulnerability and femininity tougher-voiced mezzos lack and her ability to colour the text animates every phrase. Her legato is immaculate, her German already impeccable, her voice even through its range and the sheer beauty of its tone irradiates the music. Whether she is joyful, rapt, fearful, unbelieving or desolate, every emotion is wholly credible and fully realised.
Martin Isepp, at the start of a long collaboration with Baker, is the ideal accompanist, his poetic phrasing breathing in perfect harmony with Baker’s. Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano); Geffrey Parsons (piano); 1968 BBC Legends (live; stereo)
All the virtues of her first recording are present again, - unsurprisingly, given that this performance was given only three years later and finds Baker at the start of her absolute peak period – but some rude, inconsiderate coughing (at end of the first song, for example) intrudes upon Baker’s tender singing and breaks the spell. She sings a tone down from the 1965 recording, perhaps as her voice had become just that bit heavier and fuller as she undertook more demanding stage roles. She is paired once again with one of the doyens of pianistic accompaniment and another long-term professional partner. Hilary Finch chose this in 2003 as her favourite in Record Review – but the extra weightiness of Baker’s tone and the obtrusive coughing incline me to prefer the earlier, more ethereal recording, which of Baker’s three versions best embodies the psyche of the narrator and spirit of the work.
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano); Daniel Barenboim (piano); 1968 & 75 EMI (studio; stereo)
As you may infer from my critiques of the two preceding recordings, as much as I love all three of her versions, on balance I prefer the freshness of the first. Baker’s voice is of course sublimely beautiful and the development in her voice suits the mournful heartache of the final song, but she is rather stately here for a young bride and mother and Barenboim’s playing is a touch solemn and leaden; furthermore, the sound is a bit tubby, with subdued treble frequencies and over-resonant bass. I won’t belabour the point; if this were her only recording it would still rank supreme but we are spoilt for choice so can afford to be picky.
Leontyne Price (soprano); David Garvey (piano); 1969 RCA (studio; stereo)
Leontyne Price’s sultry, smoky timbre is not perhaps the first sound you would associate with the demure young lady of these songs; it does sound a bit as if Salome has got her claws into John the Baptist. Of course, as singing per se there is much to savour and it is hard simply not to surrender to Price’s vibrant, soaring voice - the but the listener’s credibility is strained from the perspective of dramatic verisimilitude. Price’s manner and sound are more apt for the ecstatic and celebratory songs, particularly the second and fifth – she is particularly careful to lighten her tone for the latter - but the husky voluptuousness so characteristic of her voice is not really the hallmark of von Chamisso’s imaginary entity. That sensuality is especially inappropriate to the supposed numbed grief of the last song, I think.
David Garvey’s accompaniment is a little clangourous but generally fine. This is one perhaps mainly for Price’s many devotees. Elly Ameling (soprano); Dalton Baldwin (piano); 1972 Philips; Pentatone (studio; stereo)
What a beautiful, touching, yet aristocratic, soprano Elly Ameling – the “Dutch Nightingale” - displays here: perfect line and legato, ideally steady with just the right amount of vibrato and evenness throughout her range. She receives ideal support from Dalton Baldwin, her regular accompanist and between them they traverse this cycle with grace and poise. As the years pass, and despite her deserved faithful following, I wonder if we are in of danger of forgetting what a lovely artist she was (she is now retired and in her late 80’s).
She obviously belongs in the lighter, soprano camp of performers yet the warmth and intensity of her singing elevates her to being one of the best interpreters of these songs. When she sings “Es kann ja nimmer so sein” (It can never be so), we believe her and the filigree delicacy of her “Du Ring” is a thing of wonder. She never over-emotes but relies upon clear, expertly enunciation of the text and a purity of tone which, for all her artistry, Seefried lacks but finds real intensity for the last song of lament. This was one of two surprises in this survey – there is always at least one.
The sound is first-rate; the Pentatone issue is SACD for those who want that. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano); Geoffrey Parsons (piano); 1974 EMI(studio; stereo)
I am not sure that this song cycle would ever have been a suitable vehicle for Schwarzkopf’s precious manner and vocal lay-out and but, in any case, even though she was only in her late fifties when she recorded this, her voice here is not what it once was. It is tremulous and unsteady to the point that no note can be properly sustained without a winsome sigh as she pouts, primps, twitters and swoops breathily over the music. Geoffrey does what he can…
Should you unaccountably be possessed by the desire to acquire it, it is currently available only on used LP and in the Warner big recital box of 31 CDs or streamed, so think yourself lucky.
Jessye Norman (soprano); Irwin Gage (piano); 1975 Philips (studio; stereo)
On purchasing the Philips Classics issue, I was initially irked by the niggardly playing time and the almost complete lack of documentation; there is nothing in the deceptively thick and promising booklet beyond puffs for other recordings by Jessye Norman, whereas texts would have been most welcome. But let that pass – as, indeed, the quality of the singing allows us to do.
Although Norman does not have the silvery quality of, for example, Seefried, Röschmann or Margaret Price that some associate ideally with these songs, neither does Baker or Fassbaender and I still love their versions for the splendour of their vocalism and the acuity of their word-painting. Norman has a similarly imposing voice and striving to tone down its weight and vibrancy just occasionally results in a slight tremulousness in her tonal emission - but that is passing and can also be very expressive – a counterbalance to her sounding to assertive and confident. There is no doubt, too, that here, earlier in her career, her voice was just that bit lighter and brighter than it eventually became and much of her soft singing is a dream, as in the thread of sound she produces on the repeat of “ein Traum mich berückt” in the second song to suggest stunned incredulity. She was always the most extraordinarily versatile singer and became a great mistress of the Lied - and of course her German diction is a delight. She can "float a tone" with the best but when she lets rip the voice is thrilling; this is a voice which can truly “[slip] the surly bonds of earth”. Long-time accompanist Irwin Gage is an ideal partner. In the end, she avoids the impassive stateliness which marred her Nuits d’été, for example and just as her recordings emerged as frontrunners in my previous surveys of the Four Last Songs and the Wesendonck Lieder, this is a prime recommendation.
Arleen Auger (soprano); Walter Olbertz (piano); 1977 Berlin Classics (studio; stereo)
Let me first confess that while I readily her acknowledge her artistry, Aleen Auger’s light, precise soprano with its impeccable intonation and sweet, understated lyricism has almost invariably left me unmoved. Her pianist seems to acknowledge that restraint of utterance in that his accompaniment is so politely discreet as to be unnoticeable. This is sung with admirable taste and restraint and involves me not a jot. For those who balk at vulgar emotionalism and overtly demonstrative vocalism, this is for you, but for me, when listening, it requires an effort of will to stop me becoming distracted or even dropping off. Honestly, Auger, sings every song very nicely but for me this music has more to offer and I like a more characterful voice singing it.
Edith Mathis (soprano);Christoph Eschenbach (piano); 1980 Deutsche Grammophon (studio; stereo)
The clear, pure, vibrant soprano of Edith Mathis was for so many years delightful and dependable fixture in DG recordings and she is very ably accompanied here by Christoph Eschenbach who, many would say, was always a more rewarding pianist than a conductor. In some songs, I find Mathis’ manner so animated and almost hyper-active that she could almost do with calming down a bit but she can sing with serene control in the gentler ones, even if her fast vibrato is always suggestive of repressed passion. She of course belongs very much in the light, crystalline camp of interpreters and both her flawless technique and pellucid diction reinforce the brightness of this account. Furthermore, despite the prevailing sunniness of her tone, she finds some real depth and darkness in the final song, draining her voice of its habitual vibrancy. Eschenbach’s postlude is wonderfully sombre and sonorous.
This is yet another highly recommendable version. Lucia Popp (soprano); Geoffrey Parsons (piano); 1980 Eurodisc; RCA (studio; stereo)
It takes probably two seconds to recognise Lucia Popp’s very individual sound and re-listening to these recordings in chronological order meant that coming from Edith Mathis to her made me think that her singing was almost a caricature of Mathis’, with its bright timbre and fast, almost tremulous vibrato. Added to that, Popp here exhibits those distinctive features which marked out her voice a sometimes highly appealing and at others rather grating: the squeezes and swelling on individual held notes, the breathy little gulps and the swooning manner are sometimes at odds with the music. As I proceeded with this survey, I became increasingly aware that a certain classical restraint in delivering these songs was preferable to over-emoting and for me Popp simply gilds the lily with too much winsome pouting (see Schwarzkopf above!). Her fans will disagree but she didn’t do this in, for example, her account of the Four Last Songs, perhaps because the grander, more over-arching nature of that music doesn’t allow the same scope for point-making.
It goes without saying that Geoffrey Parsons is his usual, wholly dependable self here but this is not on my shortlist.
Margaret Price (soprano); James Lockhart (piano); 1981 Classics for Pleasure; Orfeo (studio; stereo)
Margaret Price’s pure, fluty soprano is heard here in its youthful prime – and you can hear how later in her career her voice developed sufficient heft and resonance to tackle some meaty Verdi and Wagner roles, rather like her contemporary Gundula Janowitz, whose voice hers greatly resembles. Her handling of ornamentation is neat and flexible yet she has great reserves of power, when her voice soars. She is never too coy or cutesy, so her portrayal emerges as a whole, rounded and direct, yet still very feminine. Her control of legato and graded dynamics is telling; she and James Lockhart take several of these songs slightly more slowly than many pairs, without dragging, giving the listener time to savour the sheer beauty of her voice and the aptness of his accompaniment, yet “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern” is fast and urgent – very effective. Her pronunciation and enunciation are flawless (she was German domiciled).
This is one of my handful of top soprano recommendations – unfortunately copies are hard and expensive to obtain.
(I have been unable to hear Price’s later recording of these songs on the Forlane label but I cannot imagine that she improves upon this wonderful recital.)
I reviewed this back in 2015 and see little reason to change any of my conclusions, so reproduce the content here:
“I have yet to hear a recording by Brigitte Fassbaender in which she is not superlative; this re-issue of her 1984 Schumann recital trumps the “Eloquence” issue previously glowingly reviewed by my MusicWeb International colleague Göran Forsling by virtue of its inclusion of German texts and English translations.
This is a voice which breathes passion. Her wonderfully sonorous lower register is balanced by the delicacy and agility of her upper range. We hear very little of the slight loosening of the vibrato which crept in later in her career and bothers some listeners. She has a gift for finding the emotional heart of every song she sings; even in songs of the utmost brevity and the widest stylistic variety of the type encountered here, she instantly adapts her voice to find the right mood. This is particularly true within the highly individuated Frauenliebe songs – a tricky cycle to pull off given the submissive adoration of the female voice adumbrated by Adelbert von Chamisso’s poems and not one you would think especially suited to Fassbaender’s assertive vocal layout. Nevertheless, she manages to disguise its mawkishness via the sheer conviction of her singing.
Her crystalline diction is a great asset to aiding…and her equal partnership with long-time accompanist Irwin Gage lends another dimension.”
I concede that some might find Fassbaender’s manner too direct and assertive but I love it.
Tatiana Troyanos (mezzo-soprano); James Levine (piano); 1985 VAI (live; digital)
I am normally a huge fan of Tatiana Troyanos, but this recording does not by any means showcase her at her best; perhaps it simply wasn’t her repertoire, an impression confirmed by the fact that some of the time she seems to sing through the songs in a fairly generalised manner. She sounds tremulous and breathless at times, with lots of excessive gasping intakes of breath presumably intended to suggest passion, but instead emerges as more hectic than impassioned. The occasional top note is scratchy. The recording does not help: it is edgy in the manner of some early digital engineering and there is quite a lot of hum, rustle, ambient noise and audience coughing and sneezing. Levine is a slightly heavy-handed accompanist, not strong on poetry. Of course, with such a lovely voice, there are moments of beauty but in the light of alternatives, this is not a contender.
Linda Finnie (mezzo-soprano) Anthony Legge (piano); 1989 Chandos (studio; digital)
I admit to an irrational love affair with Lind Finnie’s voice; I came late to an appreciation of her art but there is something about the timbre of her rich, warm, contralto-ish mezzo and her ability to shape a phrase so musically which goes straight to the art. Her German enunciation is flawless and her ability to inject passion into the words which persuades me to rank her with the three or four very finest interpreters of these songs in her voce category. I don’t think any other singer here gives such a tender, affecting, beautifully vocalised account of “Du Ring” and Anthony Legge’s pianism matches her in sensitivity of shaping and roundness of tone. She frequently sings delicately but has real reserves of power for the big, demonstrative moments. The final song is infinitely touching and desolate; Finnie shades and drains her big voice away to a thread of sound and the piano intones the most melancholy of postludes.
The digital recording made in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall is ideal. Just as I gave Finnie the highest accolade in my reviews of both Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer – in addition to being one of the best soloists in my survey of Alexander Nevsky - this is a top recommendation.
Felicity Lott (soprano); Graham Johnson (piano); 1990 IMP (studio; digital)
I have never been able to join Flott’s extensive following and respond enthusiastically to her voice; to my ears there is always some impurity, compounded here by her excessive blanching of sound and her leaning into notes to compensate for the lack of body in her soprano.
Having said that, she delivers the first song tenderly; the problem is that her understated approach spills over into the second, supposedly nervously ecstatic song which here lacks passion. Indeed, Lott continues in this vein and the whole cycle sounds bland and pleasant; there is nothing about her recording to make the listener sit up and it passes by without incident.
Graham Johnson is, as ever, the most poetic of accompanists, conjuring warm tone and phrasing affectionately but this is essentially a penny-plain vanilla recital, verging on the boring.
Nathalie Stutzmann (alto); Catherine Collard (piano); 1992 RCA (studio; digital)
As much as I like a silvery soprano like Dorothea Röschmann in these songs, the presence of a darker-voiced singer can pay dividends, and I very much enjoy them performed by one of the dying breed of true contraltos such as Ewa Podleś and Nathalie Stutzmann here. Both of those singers have both now retired from singing – Stutzmann has a flourishing second career as a conductor – and the only other recordings by altos are two vintage versions by Marian Anderson and Kathleen Ferrier, both of which I esteem highly.
Speaking of which, Stutzmann need fear none: her rich, secure alto timbre suits the line of the songs perfectly as long as the listener accepts that such an opulent, imposing sound is apt for portraying the delicate narrator - and therein will lie the rub for some. Is Stutzmann too regal and massive to succeed? She certainly softens her tone, copes perfectly well with the ornamentation and expresses the text feelingly. She has wonderful German diction and the ability to shade her big voice away to a whispering pianissimo; nor does she fall into danger area courted by too many deep female voices of sounding plummy. Furthermore, she is most sensitively, if rather carefully, accompanied by Catherine Collard. Ultimately, I cannot legislate for the listener’s taste but personally, I revel in the dark sonority of her sound.
Marilyn Horne (mezzo-soprano); Martin Katz (piano); 1992 RCA (studio; digital)
Either she was off-form or this was recorded too late in Marilyn Horne’s career – or perhaps both - as her voice is hard and nasal with much too pronounced a vibrato when she presses on notes, so the listener is harried and heckled by her aggressive tone and manner rather than seduced. There isn’t much point in elaborating its failures; nothing about this version does the singer or the music much credit and I must regretfully consign it to oblivion.
Ann Sofie Von Otter (mezzo-soprano); Bengt Forsberg (piano); 1993 Deutsche Grammophon (studio; digital)
This recording has attracted the highest plaudits, including the top recommendation from Erica Jeal in the 2016 “Building a Library”, but also some controversy for its raw emotional honesty. Von Otter’s voice is in prime condition and her way with the words intensely dramatic; although she sings beautifully, with fine legato, right from the start adopts what is almost a verismo operatic manner and her refusal too prettify the music hints at the capacity for hysteria, an impression compounded by a flickering vibrato suggestive of incipient or potential mental instability. In the last song, grief is transmuted into near-derangement and really emphasises the suffering of the protagonist in a manner quite different from other interpreters, most of whom affect a more muted response to loss – a kind of numbed resignation. Von Otter here is unafraid to drain her voice of warmth and vibration in order to create a keening or wailing effect before the stunned piano close whereby she seems to fade away into oblivion.
Bengt Forsberg provides the most sensitive accompaniment, entirely in sympathy with the soloist.
Although Von otter is a mezzo-soprano, her timbre is as light and flexible as a lyric soprano, so she hardly fits into either category. You can sample her reading on YouTube and decide for yourself if her manner suits your taste; for me she is superb but remains somewhat hors concours for reason of both her stye and intermediate voice.
Barbara Bonney (soprano); Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano); 1996 Decca (studio; digital)
Barbara Bonney very obviously belongs to the light, pure girlish soprano category; with its fast vibrato and silvery timbre, her voice is very similar to Lucia Popp’s, without the latter’s mannerisms. It really is such a pretty, charming sound and her slightly winsome, breathy production here is attractive, but this small-scale account, especially in the final song, perhaps misses the depths a more substantial voice can reach and she doesn’t sound especially involved in the texts. She almost whispers the end of “Süsser Freund, du blickest” and the ensuing “An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust” is take a startling speed – rather odd and not really successful, I think. The partnership with Ashkenazy’s predictably masterly pianism – he plays the postlude soulfully - her crystal-clear German diction and the excellent Decca digital sound are both advantages and anyone who appreciates her voice as I do will enjoy this even if I other versions dig deeper into the psyche of the narrator and the music itself.
Waltraud Meier (mezzo-sop); Gerhard Oppitz (piano); 1997 RCA (studio; digital)
Distinguished, successful and enduring artist she may be, but I have never warmed to what I hear as Waltraud Meier’s bottled tone and this recording does nothing to alter my response. If one does not warm to a singer’s basic sound there is little else say; for me, it is a non-starter. Listen to the first note of “Du Ring” and tell me that is a freely produced, pharyngeally resonant, authentically open-throated mezzo sound and I will disagree. I am quite sure that had Maria Callas caught this singer early in her career she would have told her, “Let your voice out”, as there is a tension and constriction in the way Meier generates tone which is fundamentally wrong.
You must judge for yourself: listen first on YouTube and if you enjoy her in these songs, go right ahead and ignore what you may call my contrariness.
Juliane Banse (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano); 1998 Hyperion (live; digital)
My colleague John Quinn reviewed this very approvingly in comparison with Renée Fleming’s live performance (see below), commending Juliane Banse’s “no less heartfelt but …more direct style”.
The great vocal advantage she has is that although she is a soprano, her voice has a warm, smoky timbre suggestive of sensuousness; there is nothing of the chirpy, brittle soubrette her voice and this helps her to span the range within the narrator’s character-development from bemused and besotted young woman to the grieving widow. Her perfect native-German diction is another asset. She sings these songs “straight”, with no applied expressive devices beyond subtle tonal and dynamic variation yet manifests great passion and sincerity. I particularly like the dreamy reserve of “Süsser Freund”; she can lighten and float her voice as needs be, but finds considerable reserves of power for moments of emotional extreme such as the ecstasy of maternal pride in “An meinem Herzen” or the dazed, frozen disbelief of loss in “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan”, where for the wife’s outcry she then cranks up the normally light and quick vibrato in her voice just a little to denote her distress then drains it of vibrancy to denote exhaustion.
There is much subtle, thoughtful singing here, matched by the unobtrusive refinement of Graham Johnson’s accompaniment; somehow the sonority of his playing accentuates both the piano’s independent voice and the lovely harmonies underpinning the singer’s melodic line, and the postlude of that final song is especially tender.
I was not familiar with Banse before hearing this recording and I am not sure why, but it is certainly one of the best, most intelligent, beautiful and sensitive of the versions available.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano); Julius Drake (piano); 1999 (live; digital)
Having been so enraptured by her recital albums – Bach, Handel, Berlioz, Mahler et al – I had high hopes for this one. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson had such a beautiful voice and made such expressive use of text that she was, in my experience, the closest rival in voice and manner to Janet Baker. I noted my colleague John Quinn’s review in which he describes her performance here as being “more than touched by greatness” yet elsewhere – including in BBC Radio 3’s Record Review “Building a Library”- reviewers accuse her of essentially making a meal of the music, with tempi far too slow and excessive emotional underlining. Not having previously heard it myself, I was of course intrigued by such conflicting responses and keen to hear for myself.
It is undoubtedly as beautifully sung as I had expected: slow- indeed the slowest on record at nearly twenty-eight minutes as opposed to twenty or so, dreamy, even rapturous; the big question is whether you find that interpretative stance mesmerising or merely self-conscious. Given that Hunt Lieberson is given to none of the tics or affectations that afflict some interpreters, like John, I hear this as a wholly moving and honest account. She sings softly much of the time but when she opens up her voice for big moments such as the top F on “Darf beglücken deine Wahl” in the second song, the effect is thrilling. Yes, there are indeed occasions on which I feel she rather overdoes the pregnant pauses and meaningful sighs, particularly in the emotional polar extremes of “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” – and does the enervated tempo of “Süsser Freund, du blickest” cause it plough into the sand? I fear so. The last song, however, can definitely take that drawn-out treatment and the result is powerfully affecting; especially when compounded by Drake’s masterful postlude. His singing, soulful accompaniment is ideal throughout; he is evidently in complete sympathy with the singer.
This is a live performance, caught on the wing and devoid of any extraneous noise apart from the pianist’s breathing. Any lover of this music should here this, if only to assess whether this approach brings a new dimension to appreciation of it.
Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano); Malcolm Martineau (piano); 2005 Avie (studio; digital)
Depending on what she is singing, I find that my reaction to Ann Murray’s voice is very variable. She is really like two singers: at times, she can do no wrong and at others I am bothered by a pulsing vibrato on loud notes and an edge in her tone. Unfortunately, the latter is true of this recital; she is clearly not on form. You have only to listen to the opening of “Er der Herrlichste von allen” to hear a fair degree of squally, clumsy singing – the penultimate stanza of that song is positively shrieked and hence painful, so much so that in truth I could hardly bear to listen to this disc more than once. Murray could be a very expressive artist and here does some things nicely, as in the way she lightens her voice to suggest youth and naivety, and “Du Ring” is tenderly sung, but the wobble and rasp soon creep in as soon as she applies any pressure and volume on her tone, a pattern repeated throughout. Quite often, she almost drowns out Martineau’s typically sensitive accompaniment, too.
This is such a disappointing account; there are much, much better to be had – and Murray, too, is infinitely more appealing elsewhere in other recordings where she is in much better voice.
Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano); Roger Vignoles (piano); 2007 Harmonia Mundi (studio; digital)
I have always found Bernarda Fink to be among the most reliably musical, unpretentious and attractive mezzo-sopranos in the business and so it proves here. She and the equally musical and reliable Roger Vignoles begin quite briskly, in direct, no-nonsense fashion; indeed, this is one of the fastest accounts, relying on luminous tone and limpid delivery of the text without the unnecessary artifice or posturing which disfigures a few recordings elsewhere.
Of course, the potential disadvantage for some listeners is that they would like to hear more overtly poetical and reflective manner of the kind we hear in the similarly voiced Hunt Lieberson, who takes a full seven minutes more over the cycle, but I would counter with the observation that Fink shades her voice expertly, deploying dynamic variation especially tellingly in “Ich kann’s nicht fassen”. There is a real sense of flow and lightness throughout here despite the depth of tone in the voice and much tender, restrained singing. Fink is able to generate real passion at climaxes; the final lament, where like all the best interpreters, Fink often drains her voice of colour and vibration, is devastating. The recorded sound is ideal; both the voice and piano are in perfect balance and ring out splendidly.
This is clearly yet another top recommendation.
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Eugene Asti (piano); 2007 Chandos (studio; digital)
Terry Barfoot briefly reviewed this back in 2007 and remarked, “Connolly and Asti tend towards slower tempi, perhaps missing some degree of ardour, though a real highlight of their performance is 'Du Ring an meinem Finger', in which there is much intensity. The balance between voice and piano is nicely achieved by both the artists and the Chandos engineers.”
I agree but I find Asti’s staccato phrasing in the first song rather obtrusive and also find the constant recourse to little rubato touches in the second song quite irritating. Connolly sings richly, as you might expect, but at volume her vibrato can obtrude, and Terry was right about a certain deliberateness and lack of ardour in the delivery of these songs, a failing only exacerbated by Asti’s pianistic mannerisms.
Those demerits are not consistent throughout but their cumulative effect is to alienate me somewhat from this recording, especially if I consider it in comparison with my favourite versions.
Mari-Nicole Lemieux (contralto); Daniel Blumenthal (piano); 2008 Naïve (studio; digital)
I have not been especially impressed by, or complimentary about, Mari-Nicole Lemieux’s previous recital records but this one is different. Perhaps some of those I had listened to were recorded before her voice had developed the extraordinarily rich, deep, timbre which immediately strikes the ear; it is like an “old-fashioned contralto” yet there is nothing stately about her delivery which is impassioned and deeply engaged, an effect greatly aided by Daniel Blumenthal’s fluid, flexible accompaniment, which is of a sonority to match Lemieux’s voice.
Her singing also brings to mind the voices of more recent singers such as Ewa Podleś and Nathalie Stutzmann (see above); her voice particularly resembles that of the latter. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, but I came back to this previously unheard recording straight after revisiting Sarah Connolly’s and everything about this one struck me as superior, not least the velvety luxuriance of Lemieux’s voice and the intensity of her engagement compared with Connolly.
The only reservation I have is to ask whether perhaps her sound is too upholstered to suggest a young bride; for me, the artistry here outweighs that potential objection.
This was the surprise of my survey and I thoroughly recommend it. Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano); Christian Blackshaw (piano); 2014 Wigmore Hall Live (live; digital)
Alice Coote is another of those successful artists to whom I have never warmed, despite her being hailed as Janet Baker’s successor. As far as I am concerned, there is little resemblance between them and for me her singing has always evinced the besetting fault of too much self-conscious point-making at the expense of the vocal line. This live performance witnesses all the things I dislike about her singing: too much expressive swooping, a strange change of gear into a constricted sound as the voice goes up, a permanent edge in the tone and a kind of breathy emphasis with a spreading vibrato under pressure; I’ll stop there.
Göran Forsling was much more positive about this recital in his review, so I refer you to that as a counterbalance to my response; in the end, so much of this is a question of taste but there is no way this makes my shortlist. (For the record, Erica Jeal in “Building a Library” disliked it, too, for some of the same reasons – but that’s neither here nor there…)
I was so taken by Dorothea Röschmann's "Portraits" album, which featured, amongst others, some of Schumann's songs portraying women, that when it was first released, I was keen to hear this collaboration with Dame Mitsuko Uchida, who is of course herself a Schumann expert so this partnership augured well - and I was not disappointed.
We'll take for granted the lovely, limpid, not-too-close sound provided by Decca. The singing is exquisite; Röschmann has a silvery, soaring soprano in the Lucia Popp/Margaret Price category, light, bright, pure and shimmering with easy top notes and real intensity without a hint of wobble or scratch. Her diction is of course ideal and she sings with real passion. The delicacy of Uchida's pianism matches Röschmann's poise. She is, as you might expect, a model of restraint, reticence and refinement, hardly ever playing above a mezzo forte but rising to the rapture of passages. Some might wish for a more histrionic accompaniment but I find that her style suits perfectly both the singer's vocal layout and, especially, the mood of the tender songs. This is an account to match the best soprano predecessors, even if it does not shake my preference for a mezzo-soprano and thus my first allegiance to a young Janet Baker.
Renée Fleming (soprano); Hartmut Höll (piano); 2017 Decca (studio; digital)
John Quinn reviewed this in 2019 and expressed reservations about Renée Fleming’s propensity to over-interpret. I am a fan of Ms Fleming in the right repertoire but John is right to observe that she is given to too many “bluesy” slides and inflections which can become irksome. Hardly a note passes without being slid into and swelled, and little breathy nudges, hesitations and emphases needed to be more sparingly applied; the deployment of too many “expressive effects”, regardless of the beauty of the voice, can sound precious and affected (à la Schwarzkopf at her worst) and make this listener want to return to either Von Otter’s dramatic directness or Seefried’s unadorned sincerity. Too often Fleming comes across as cloyingly winsome: the brief “Ich kann's nicht fassen” is a particularly egregious and concentrated example of her pouty, cutesy style and is frankly verging on the repellent and the last song emerges almost as a parody of diva mannerisms in excelsis.
Hartmut Höll’s accompanying seems to have caught something of his singer’s fulsomeness, especially in the postlude, which needs more repose and perhaps even numbed detachment than he bestows on it.
I refer you to John’s review for more detail, as there is little point in my reiterating his observations, with which I wholly agree, although he is characteristically more tactful than I in his delineation of his doubts.
The impact of beautiful vocalisation is easily compromised by excessive artifice and emotionalism; trying too hard to find emotions already in the text and music if they are feelingly but tastefully delivered is anathema to these songs.
Elina Garanča (mezzo-soprano); Malcolm Martineau (piano); 2020 Deutsche Grammophon (studio; digital)
Göran Forsling has just enthusiastically reviewed this new issue, making comparison between Elina Garanča here and Irmgard Seefried’s more intimate approach (see above). I endorse his response with one or two slight reservations of my own.
Garanča’s manner is refreshingly different from Fleming’s: straightforward and direct. This is not a cycle which makes heroic demands on a voice but she maintains a warm, steady, even tone throughout. Nothing is excessive or overdone, but perhaps the elements of both the individuality and passion I find in the most distinctive interpreters are missing; I find listening to this very pleasant but unmemorable and do not hear that, as Göran puts it, she “has dug deep into the soul of the character” but nor do I want to suggest that she is inexpressive. The dark colour of her mezzo certainly lends a sombre gravitas to the final song, confirming that I find her approach marginally more successful in the slower, more contemplative songs; her evocation of joy is less animated. Tempi are generally broad and unhurried and the expert Martin Martineau supports Garanča’s relatively undemonstrative manner unobtrusively.
There is nothing at all wrong with this very satisfying account, only I would turn first to more striking versions.
All three interpretations by Lehmann, Ferrier and Anderson on the Music & Arts compilation are so compelling that I recommend them as supplements to a version in modern sound, although Ferrier’s studio recording remains even more recommendable than her live performance and Lehmann’s earlier recording - like Ferrier, with Bruno Walter as pianist - presents her in more youthful voice.
An essential purchase remains one of Janet Baker’s three recordings; it hardly matters which, so go with your preference; my own is for the earliest, freshest, Saga recording.
Otherwise, quel embarrass de richesses! An indication of the strength of the field is that as I progressed through these recordings, either revisiting or experiencing them for the first time, I kept wanting to add to my list of recommendations. As a result, I endorse below no fewer than fourteen –nearly a third of the recordings reviewed and many more than is really practicable – or perhaps even helpful - for anyone seeking guidance; on the other hand, that plethora indicates that the prospective purchaser can hardly go wrong with any of them and can safely acquire any recording according to personal taste – and I do suggest that half a dozen above should be avoided.
A useful distinction might be made between the lighter, soprano versions which accentuate the youthful, girlish nature of the narrator and those employing a darker, mezzo-tinted hue of voice whereby the more sombre and maternal aspects of the cycle are emphasised; encompassing both moods is challenging. I recommend one singer per category but in truth any other singer from that category could easily be substituted for her. In general, a studio recording is preferable given that these songs are predominately intimate, and coughing can be particularly destructive to enjoyment, but one or two live recordings, such as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s, evince no such disadvantage.
Historical: Lehmann 1949; Ferrier 1950* Sopranos:Elly Ameling 1972*; Edith Mathis 1980; Margaret Price 1981; Juliane Banse 1998; Dorothea Röschmann 2015 Mezzo-sopranos:Janet Baker 1965*; Linda Finnie 1989; Ann Sofie Von Otter 1996;
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson 1999; Bernarda Fink 2007 Contraltos: Nathalie Stutzmann 1992; Mari-Nicole Lemieux 2008* *First choices in each category