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Johannes BRAHMS

Lieder, Complete Edition Vol.3:
"Die Schöne Magelone" - Romances, op.33

Andreas Schmidt (baritone), Helmut Deutsch (pianoforte)
CPO 999 443-2 [55' 26"]

The complete Brahms lieder edition master-minded by Helmut Deutsch is an important series. However, the principal value of such editions is when they group together items which can only be acquired, if at all, in bits and pieces, rather than when they alight on a single work which has not lacked advocates.

Brahms's single song-cycle has never quite caught on as have those of Schubert and Schumann, and the reason is that the poems used appear during Tieck's tale of romantic chivalry as comments on the action. It therefore ensues that anyone who follows the song-cycle by the songs alone will be quite unaware that any sort of story is being told; they will hear a collection of mostly love-songs, longer but not different in nature from Brahms's other opus numbers of lieder, in which no inter-relationship between the songs is intended. Listeners to this record can rest assured that a full synopsis of the story is provided and the context of each song explained. All the same, a listener who is expected to put in all this homework will never feel the same degree of identification that he can with the self-explanatory cycles of Schubert and Schumann. These considerations are not intended to raise doubts as to the value of the individual songs, which contain some well-varied melodic writing and often very ambitious piano parts.

Andreas Schmidt has an enviable reputation as one of the finest baritone lieder-singers of the post-Fischer-Dieskau age. He has indeed a well-rounded and attractive voice, and the only chink in his armoury is that his high notes, his Ds and Es most notably, show slight problems of pitching, in fortes more than in pianos. I don't want to make very much of this, because it doesn't happen all that often, on the other hand there is no song where it doesn't happen at all and over the course of nearly an hour's listening I found it taking the edge off my enjoyment. And, well I've got to say it sooner or later, with Fischer-Dieskau this doesn't happen. (On the other hand, Fischer-Dieskau sometimes goes into a crooning head-voice in his high pianos and I do appreciate Schmidt's avoidance of this). Try no.10, Verzweiflung, which is the most strenuous of the songs, and see if it worries you as much as it does me.

Helmut Deutsch's extensive work with at least two generations of lieder singers has earned him fame and above all gratitude, for not every accompanist understands his singers and their voices, or even tries to. He is an excellent pianist, but in the last resort his instrument doesn't quite sing. Turning to the 1970 Salzburg Festival performance by Fischer-Dieskau and Sviatoslav Richter (Orfeo C 490 981 B) is cruel. Richter exaggerates nothing, but he has at his disposal such a range of pianistic colouring, such an ability to separate out contrapuntal strands in the textures, that he hardly seems to be playing the same music. This live performance has a passionate conviction which leaves the new one stillborn. The downside is that by 1970 Fischer-Dieskau's tone was beginning to dry out and his approach was becoming more interventionist.

I also heard an off-the-air tape of a more "normal" performance given somewhere in Italy in 1964 by Fischer-Dieskau with Karl Engel. In this case the interpretation is uncannily similar to the new disc and the great man's voice is more melodious here, whether in comparison with his later self or with Schmidt. Engel is no Richter but even he often gives us music where Deutsch gives us notes (could Italian Radio make this performance available to some interested company?).

We have to be grateful that there is a baritone today who is able to give an interpretation in the Fischer-Dieskau mould which is so nearly as good as the model but how can I recommend readers to buy this disc instead of the Fischer-Dieskau/Richter one? On the other hand, if you get that you will get neither synopsis nor text nor translations, just a miserable note telling you how good the performance is, something which most listeners would prefer to find out for themselves.

I feel really mean and ungrateful to write about such a good CD in this way, but there it is.

Christopher Howell

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