Complete Songs 1 Import
Zueignung, Die Georgine, Breitüber mein Haupt, Glückes genug, Ich liebe dich, Hochzeitlich Lied, Leises Lied, Befreit, Wiegenlied, In der Campagna, Frühlingsfeier, Die heiligen drei Könige... / Christine Brewer, sop. - Roger Vignoles, piano
I suppose one has to praise Hyperion for the effort, and in that sense I am happy to see this release receive some praise and recommendation from various quarters. Yet I have my own serious misgivings, and they stem not so much from the execution (though I have misgivings about that as well) as from the source material. Of Strauss roughly 200 songs with piano few are particularly well known, though we actually get the perhaps most famous ones – “Zueignung” and “Wiegenlied” – in this first installment. “Zueignung” in particular is a brief little masterpiece, though it has also been recorded multiple times and I don’t think Christine Brewer and Roger Vignoles can displace or rival the best among the alternative versions. As for the rest, one quickly notices that Strauss had a penchant for lesser known – and dare I say lesser – poems, and one reason may, I suspect, be that he didn’t really care that much about the text, or getting the music to match the text; instead, the goal seems often to have been to create works of pure music where the main purpose of the text was merely to give the singer something to sing.
Be that as it may; the problem for me, at least – and I admit that not everyone seems to agree – is that Strauss’s talents weren’t particularly well suited to the medium. Strauss was a master orchestrator, and his orchestral songs are among the most glorious in the repertoire, but these piano-accompanied songs strike me as being a poor man’s substitute. That is, almost all of these songs strike me as essentially orchestral songs, where Strauss – not a very idiomatic composer for the piano – tries his best, and fails, to make the piano perform the same tricks. The results are piano parts that seem excessively overwrought, and the pianist is forced to trying to do things the piano simply cannot do. It is borderline exhausting at times, and to underscore the point, the songs here that are also available in orchestral versions are vastly superior in the latter versions – with all the shades and colors an orchestra can produce – that hearing these piano versions becomes something of a disenchanting and disheartening experience. A bit like returning to a beautiful childhood field and see it transformed into an industrial park.
But perhaps the performances are partially to blame? While Brewer is among the greatest opera singers currently active, she sounds to me rather unsuitable for lieder – on the disc at hand she bellows out at full throat, approximately hitting the notes of her accompanist. Roger Vignoles often has to treat the piano as a percussion instrument to keep up, with results that sometimes sound to me almost like a parody – though the composer is surely to blame as well. Vignoles also strike me as being too stingy on the pedal, especially since these performances are recorded with little to no space or reverberance (at least that’s what it sounds like on my system). I really would have wanted to be more enthusiastic, and I suppose the project is valuable for covering music that isn’t otherwise available, but I really cannot come up with very much positive to say about this recording. Sorry.
Volume I, now released, contains eighteen songs written from 1882 to 1928, not all of them are outstanding but each of these songs is historically significant. Strauss understood the female voice range from mezzo to coloratura and wrote some of the most hauntingly beautiful songs in the repertoire. Opening with the 'Zueignung' (still one of his most often performed songs) and proceeding in chronological order of writing, this recital continues with unknown songs along with familiar ones. It is a feast!
Making this recital consummate is the gifted young singer Christine Brewer, a musician with a near faultless, gorgeous vocal technique and interpretative ability to probe the poetry as well as the musical line as well as any singer living. Having experienced her live in the infamous Los Angeles Philharmonic production of 'Tristan und Isolde' makes it easy to attest to her stage demeanor and communicative powers. She is a rising giant. Her capable collaborator on this disc is pianist Roger Vignoles who not only matches Brewer's quality, he also enhances the intellectual aspect of this recording venture with exception Program Notes.
Be advised that this series has begun and if all of the subsequent installments are of the standard of this Volume I, the Strauss lovers should plan to collect them all. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, August 05