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Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)
Frauenliebe und–Leben, Op 42
Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Elina Garanča (mezzo-soprano)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. Berlin, Meistersaal, July 2020
Sung texts with English translations enclosed

Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča has had an important international career since her breakthrough in 2003 at the Salzburger Festspiele. Since 2005 she has also had an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, which has resulted in a series of highly regarded recital discs and also several complete operas on DVD and CD, but this is her first excursion into the song repertoire, and it certainly is moreish. With the ever reliable and inspirational Malcolm Martineau at the grand she offers Schumann’s deeply engaging cycle Frauenliebe und –Leben to texts by Adalbert von Chamisso and a baker’s dozen of Brahms’s best lieder. In the Schumann she is up against an impressive range of great singers from Julia Culp in 1909 to the present day. I haven’t heard all of them – I wonder how many have – but there are some twenty versions on my shelves and most of those are very good. My personal favourite is the first one I bought back in the mid-1960s with the lovely Irmgard Seefried. She was then only in her mid-40s, i.e. about the same age as Elina Garanča was when she set down the present disc in July 2020. Even then she was a bit past her best vocally, but she managed to hide this very effectively and her restrained readings are very touching and heart-warming. I couldn’t resist searching it out – it was quite some time since I last listened to it – and my memory hadn’t deceived me: it was just as vulnerable, frail and deeply moving, sometimes performed with a thin, almost childish tone. In the more ecstatic moments she never presses her voice beyond its natural limits but the intensity is still coming across graphically. Not even the dry acoustics can subdue the effect.

Elina Garanča’s reading is quite different. Her beautiful mezzo-soprano shows no signs of wear, it is darkish and rounded and she has the power and dynamics of a Carmen. I incidentally heard her in that role more than ten years ago at the Metropolitan and she has retained the same freshness and charisma. She has a deep understanding of the text, and has obviously known the songs since she was young. Like Seefried she has dug deep into the soul of the character and has chiselled out a full-sized portrait with all the required nuances but it is on a much grander scale than Seefried’s. Her tempos are also slightly broader, even though the difference is more noticeable when you see the timings than what you actually hear. In both cases the tempos are part and parcel of the interpreters’ general approach. If I want to generalise I could say that Irmgard Seefried’s is an intimate portrait directed to a small group of listeners gathered in a drawing-room with candle-lights – something like the milieu in the parlour of a bourgeois home in Schumann’s time; Garanča’s grander approach belongs more in a modern chamber music venue like Wigmore Hall. Both readings are perfectly valid – as are so many other old and recent recordings – and hearing both side by side no doubt deepens one’s understanding of the heroine’s predicament.

It should be mentioned that the Seefried LP probably hasn’t been available for ages. It was a Concert Hall issue with Walter Klien at the piano. She recorded Frauenliebe with her regular pianist Erik Werba for Deutsche Grammophon in 1957 and that version is available with various couplings.
Garanča has chosen an hors-d’oeuvre of Brahms songs, spanning from his very first effort in the genre, Liebestreu Op. 3 No. 1, from 1853 when he had hardly left his teens, to Mädchenlied Op. 107 No. 5 from 1888, which is his last published song, bar Vier ernste Gesänge from 1896. Here Ms Garanča is in her glory. She indulges in Brahms’s often stormy emotions with a richness of tone and intensity of utterance that is totally overwhelming. It happens that I sometimes finds Brahms curiously bloodless, but not so here. And she is, as in Frauenliebe, sensitive to nuances as well. The opening Liebestreu is an excellent example of the ideal balance between power and warmth. And everything is not Sturm und Drang. O kühler Wald is permeated with warmth, Sapphische Ode is noble and restrained, and the wonderful Geheimnis and Wir wandelten are so affectionately and tenderly delineated. Listen also to the opening of Die Mainacht: so simple and beautiful.

Elsewhere she is just magnificent and glorious. Listen to the stormy Verzagen, where her voice rushes forth like a lava stream. Enjoy the ecstasy of O liebliche Wangen and follow her to Nirvana in the even greater ecstasy of Von ewiger Liebe. I can’t imagine a more grandiose conclusion to a programme. With Malcolm Martineau following her, encouraging her and sharing her emotions this is music making of the highest order. The great Jessye Norman, cooperating with Daniel Barenboim on a couple of Deutsche Grammofon discs made some thirty years ago, have long been my benchmark for Brahms singing in the highest division. Elina Garanča and Malcolm Martineau are now challenging their hegemony.

Frauenliebe und–Leben is great, the Brahms songs even greater. Place your orders!

Göran Forsling

Brahms Lieder
Liebestreu, Op 3 No. 1 [2:13]
Heimweh II: O wüsst‘ ich doch den Weg zurück Op. 63 No. 8 [3:39]
Mädchenlied Op. 107 No. 5 [1:43]
Liebe und Frühling II: Ich muss hinaus Op. 3 No. 3 [1:58]
O kühler Wald Op. 72 No. 3 [1:58]
Verzagen Op. 72 No. 4 [2:53]
Sapphische Ode Op. 94 No. 4 [2:42]
O liebliche Wangen Op. 47 No. 4 [1:56]
Geheimnis Op. 71 No. 3 [2:02]
Wir wandelten Op. 96 No. 2 [3:03]
Alte Liebe Op. 72 No. 1 [2:59]
Die Mainacht Op. 43 No. 2 [3:22]
Von ewiger Liebe Op. 43 No. 1 [4:33]

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