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Fritz Wunderlich (tenor)

Josef Müller-Mayen; Rolf Reinhardt; Hubert Giesen (piano)
rec. 1955-1965. ADD
Texts not included
SWR MUSIC SWR19064CD [3 CDs: 158:45]

Here is buried treasure indeed: a set of recordings made for the German radio station SWR between 1955 and 1965 by the tragically short-lived Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966). Most are studio recordings but the contents of CD 2 were recorded in the Konzertsaal, Schwetzingen Schloss on 19 May 1965 during the Schwetzingen Festival. I don’t know if an audience was present on that occasion; if so, they were commendably silent.

The earliest recordings, his first for the station, open CD 1: the Brahms items and the first six Wolf songs. These were set down on 30 November 1955 in Mainz with Josef Müller-Mayen at the piano. Despite the skilful efforts of the restoration engineers these are the recordings which, perhaps inevitably, most show their age. In particular, the piano is rather recessed and lacking in tone. Wunderlich himself can be clearly heard and he seems closer to the microphone than in the later recordings. He was just past his 25th birthday at the time and as yet he doesn’t display the range of vocal colours that would be in evidence a few years later. That said, his singing evidences considerable artistry and the youthful eagerness and the ring in his voice gives much pleasure. He does the Brahms folksongs nicely, capturing the direct simplicity of the settings. In the Wolf group I admired his sense of line in Nun laß uns Frieden schließen and the way he conveys melancholy in Nicht länger kann ich singen.

The remainder of Disc 1 was also recorded in Mainz – but in a different studio – on 2 November 1962. This time the pianist was Rolf Reinhardt. Seven years on from those first recordings we notice that the sound is better – for one thing, the piano reproduces much more satisfactorily. The most obvious change, though, is in Wunderlich’s voice. It’s noticeably richer and he has a wider range of tonal resources at his command. You can hear a greater ring in the voice and the range of expression is wider. this is now the great voice that so many people remember so fondly. This much-developed voice, as compared to 1955, is immediately apparent in Wolf’s Fußreise and his accounts of its two companions are just as fine,

From 1962 also comes Beethoven’s Adelaide, the first of two performances in this set. Wunderlich’s voice is wonderfully open-toned and his phrasing is expansive, as the song requires. There are two Schubert items and Ihr Bild just left me wishing there was more from Schwanengesang in this collection. In this song Rolf Reinhardt offers some of the best piano playing in the set; he’s very imaginative. The Strauss items are very welcome. The generously-toned performance of Zueignung is a joy to hear while in Heimliche Aufforderung Wunderlich’s impassioned singing sweeps the listener along.

Passing over Disc 2 for the moment, we have a complete performance of Die schöne Müllerin on Disc 3. Actually, the use of the word “complete” isn’t strictly accurate, I’m afraid. One of the two drawbacks with this performance is that in several strophic songs individual stanzas are omitted in what seems a completely arbitrary fashion. (We learn from the booklet notes that Wunderlich and his pianist, Hubert Giesen inflicted similar cuts on their commercial recording of the cycle. Apparently, this was not an uncommon practice in the 1950s and 1960s). The cuts are very regrettable. The other reservation I have about this performance is that the piano playing seems rather literal and unimaginative. Hubert Giesen (1898-1980) was a pianist with whom Wunderlich worked a lot during the last few years of his short career. On Disc 2 Giesen is heard to much better advantage, especially in the Schumann songs, but here I miss in particular the rubato and natural ’give’ that can add so much to a Schubert performance. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Graham Johnson, Paul Lewis or Malcolm Martineau? Perhaps Giesen belonged to an earlier, less interventionist school of pianism? Whatever the reasons, he seems here to come across more as an accompanist than as Wunderlich’s artistic partner.

The cuts are very disappointing. Just to cite a few: the third and fourth stanzas of ‘Das Wandern’ are missing; ‘Morgengruß’ is shorn of its third stanza; the lovely, easy delivery of ‘Des Müllers Blumen’ is compromised by the omission of the third stanza; and ‘Tränenregen’ loses its second stanza. Perhaps most woundingly of all, the second and fourth stanzas of ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ are absent. However, despite the cuts there’s a great deal to enjoy and I don’t think anyone should be deterred by the cuts: it is what it is. Right from the start Wunderlich impresses with the clarity of his tone and diction in ‘Das Wandern’ and these characteristics are typical of what is to follow. His delivery of ‘Wohin?’ seems effortless. I greatly admired the lovely line in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’; this song flows so naturally. The plaintive singing of ‘Der Neugierige’ really engages the listener’s sympathy. Later, ‘Der Jäger’ is clearly articulated by both artists and Wunderlich projects the vocal line really well. He brings bitter anger to ‘Die böse Farbe’ and the two following songs are very well sung indeed. Despite the twin reservations over the cuts and the understated pianism, this account of Die schöne Müllerin is definitely worth hearing and it’s presented in very acceptable sound.

Disc 2 contains, I presume, all the contents of a recital from the Schwetzingen Festival; once again the pianist was Hubert Giesen. Back in 2003, Deutsche Grammophon issued a CD of what turned out to be Wunderlich’s last recital. He gave this in early September 1966 in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. The source for the recording was a private off-air recording of the BBC broadcast. DG made a good job of restoring it but the results aren’t perfect: Wunderlich’s voice can be heard very well but the piano sound is backward and “swimmy”. Nonetheless, it’s a treasurable document (DG 9806790). It’s relevant to mention that disc because much of the Edinburgh programme was also performed at Schwetzingen, so collectors who already have the DG disc now have the opportunity to acquire alternative excellent performances of much of the material in appreciably better sound through this SWR set.

The Schwetzingen programme offers the second performance in this set of Beethoven’s Adelaide. Here the sound is improved by comparison with the 1962 version and arguably Wunderlich sings with a bit more freedom and phrases even more expansively. Giesen plays very well for him. In the Schubert group the performance of Nachtstück is serious and searching while Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren finds Wunderlich in elevated and eloquent form.

The reason that I’ve come last to Disc 2 in this review, though, is that it contains the real prize: the performance of Dichterliebe. If you listen to Wunderlich in these songs you might well think that he was born to sing this great cycle. The easy, poignant line he spins in ‘Im wunderschönen Monat mai’ hooks the listener straightaway: the way he approaches the tops of phrases is wonderful to hear. In ‘Aus meinen Tränen sprießen’ we hear even production and an ideal degree of expression from a singer at the very top of his from. A little later, there’s strength in his delivery of ‘Im Rhein, im hieligen Strome’ and this vocal strength spills over into an ardent account of ‘Ich grolle nicht’. I love the inwardness he brings to ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’ and just as rewarding to hear is the playfulness he finds in ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’. In ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’ Wunderlich shows a wonderful command of expressive line and, if anything, that’s even more the case in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’. The last song, ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ is sung in a compelling fashion and then Giesen rounds off the song – and the cycle - with a very nicely poised account of the postlude. This is a marvellously sensitive and poetic account of Dichterliebe and even though everything in this set is a “must hear” for lovers of great singing, Dichterliebe is the jewel in the crown.

These recordings have been remastered with evident care from the original SWR tapes by engineers Gabriele Starke and Boris Kellenbenz. I think they’ve done a very fine job. There’s a useful essay in German and English by Lothar Brandt and the engineers have also contributed a note describing how they went about their restoration of the tapes. I imagine their work was pretty intensive but their efforts have been extremely worthwhile. This is a marvellous set which offers an opportunity to hear great artistry caught on the wing.

John Quinn

CD 1
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Es wohnet ein Fiedler WoO 33 Nr. 36
Da unten im Tale WoO 33 Nr 6
Feinsliebchen, du sollst mir nicht barfuß geh’n
WoO 33 nr 12
Die Nachtigall WoO 33 Nr 2
Des Abends kann ich nicht schlafen gehn
WoO 33 Nr 38
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
O wüßtest Du, wie viel ich deinetwegen
Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt entstund
Nun laß uns Frieden schließen
Hoffährtig seid Ihr, schönes Kind
Nicht länger kann ich singen
Wie soll ich fröhlich sein
Fritz Wunderlich (tenor) | Josef Müller-Mayen (piano)
Fußreise. Lied Nr. 10
Nimmersatte Liebe. Lied Nr.9
Der Musikant. Lied Nr. 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Zärtliche Liebe WoO 123
Adelaide op. 46
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Ständchen D 889
Ihr Bild D 957 Nr 9
Richard SRAUSS (1864-1949)
Zueignung op. 10 Nr.1
Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten op. 19 Nr 4
Heimliche Aufforderung op. 27Nr. 2
Fritz Wunderlich (tenor) | Rolf Reinhardt (piano)
CD 2
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Dichterliebe Op 48
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Adelaide op. 46
Resignation WoO 149
Der Kuss op. 128
Der Einsame D 800
Nachtstück D 672
An die Laute D 905
Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren D 360
An Silvia D 891
Der Musensohn D 764
Fritz Wunderlich (tenor) | Hubert Giesen (piano)
CD 3
Die schöne Müllerin D 795
Fritz Wunderlich (tenor) | Hubert Giesen (piano)


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