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Thomas Quasthoff/Justus Zeyen - Schubert, "Schwanengesang" Brahms "Vier Ernste Gesaenge"
"To sing like that just once - and then ..............." wrote Maxim Gorky after hearing Chaliapin - and there really are moments on this recording which make one understand exactly what he meant. There is a definitive quality about the singing, which persuades you that Quasthoff's way with these songs is the only one, and his accompanist is in all aspects his equal, with a poetic yet muscular style which ideally complements this most individual of voices, with its noble, burnished tone and its sense of powerful ease.
This combination of works is unique on disc, surprisingly since it is a very logical one; both are late works, both represent the composer's valediction to the genre, and both are ideally suited to the baritone voice. There has been much discussion of late as to whether or not "Schwanengesang" ought to be performed as though it were a "cycle," or as two or even three separate sets of songs. The latter approach was taken in the Hyperion edition, not entirely successfully, but Quasthoff brushes aside these considerations; such is the magnetic power of his singing that one rarely imagines that these songs could be performed in any other way.
All of Quasthoff's great qualities are apparent in the Rellstab settings - superb legato line, natural inflexion of words and that uniquely beautiful tone with its embracing warmth and sweet tremulousness. These interpretations easily stand comparison with the best, and it is a matter of taste as to whether or not you prefer, say, John Mark Ainsley's bright, youthful tone and ardent manner to Quasthoff's aching yet understated passion. For me, Ainsley has the edge in "Liebesbotschaft" and "Staendchen" - in the latter, the tenor is simply perfection; at "Liebchen, komm' zu mir!" you can, as Graham Johnson puts it, almost feel the singer's tenderness, and at "Komm, begluecke mich!" you sense the lover's forlorn mood. Quasthoff also sings this beautifully, but he lacks Ainsley's tender ardour - he is rather fierce at moments, sounding almost threatening rather than pleading.
The Heine and Seidl settings are another matter; here, Quasthoff is in his element, and it would be difficult to find a more ideal interpretation of songs such as "Ihr Bild" and "Am Meer." "Das Fischermaedchen" is beguilingly seductive in a way totally lacking in Anthony Rolfe Johnson's version, and "Die Taubenpost" is one of the finest pieces of Schubert singing I have ever heard. Where Rolfe Johnson annoys with his reedy tone and approximate German, Quasthoff enchants and moves with his exquisite modulation and colouring, especially at the song's close, where he makes you gasp at the way he handles the little appoggiatura lean on "Sehnsucht" and his just-enough pressure on "treuen."
The Brahms set is equally fine; Quasthoff's singing and Zeyen's playing are both magisterial from start to finish. This singer seems to have a special affinity for the music of Brahms, and together with his marvellous pianist, always sensitive and consistently virtuosic in the best possible sense, he convinces the listener that these songs are among the greatest in the genre. Their darkness and almost obsessive quality make them perfect for this voice, and Quasthoff interprets them in wonderfully fervent tones.
Rather than externalising the dramas of both "cycles," this singer conveys their individual moods and feelings not by pointing at himself and saying,"Look at me! See how I suffered," seeming instead to point at us, and say," Look at you!" His singing unites emotional poetic grace with muscular reason, and this major recording is one which will be indispensable for all who love this sublime music.
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Thomas Quasthoff's triumphant life, despite unimaginable adversities, surely qualifies him for interpreting the "Four Earnest Songs" of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) with more emotional authenticity than any other baritone I can think of. That wouldn't be enough, of course, if Quasthoff didn't also have a superb 'instrument' - his voice - and equally superb vocal technique. To my ears, the Lieder of Brahms and Schubert are Quasthoff's natural repertoire; I don't enjoy his Bach or his Mahler nearly as much; he lacks the agility for the former and the 'sprezzatura' for the latter. His recordings of Schubert's "Winterreise' and "Schöne Müllerin" -- the latter also accompanied by pianist Justus Zeyen -- have been justly acclaimed and are among my favorites in the genre. This performance, of songs written in the last years of the lives of Brahms and Franz Schubert (1797-1828), moves me deeply. I offer it as my choice for Quasthoff's finest recording.
The fourteen songs conventionally grouped as a cycle and given the title "Schwanengesang" - Swansong - are settings of seven poems by Ludwig Rellstab, six poems by Heinrich Heine, and one anomalously cheerful poem by Johann Seidl. It's only a musicologist's guess that Schubert would have assembled these 14 Lieder into precisely such a cycle; the title "Schwanengesang" was the invention of the publishers of the posthumous first edition. Honestly, I don't think the cycle is well-assembled as such; the seven Rellstab songs make a grand cycle all by themselves, a cycle with potently cogent affect as well as musical unity, while the Heine songs, lovely and delicate as they are, seem clearer and more poignant by themselves. The final Lied, the amourous "Taubenpost", plainly belongs in different company. The Rellstab poems are indeed elegiac -- texts of resignation and 'departure', truly akin to the fabled song of the dying swan -- and Schubert never wrote anything more magnificently sorrowful. As Thomas Quasthoff says about all the songs on this CD: "Here the colors are crucial; they must be dark, severe, somber." But if the Rellstab colors are deeply dark, the Heine songs, like all of Heine's poetry, are of a pastel darkness streaked with nacreous irony.
Brahms apparently composed his Opus 121 "Vier Ernste Gesänge" in 1896, in response to the deaths of several lifelong friends, and in anticipation of the death of Clara Schumann, who had suffered a dreadful stroke. The four Biblical texts, however, are hardly consolatory. The first three are exclamation of despair, scarcely compatible with any Christian hopes of resurrection and eternal bliss. [It seems possible that the fourth song had been composed sometime earlier in Brahms's work-life. The music is utterly fitting in this group, but the text seems oddly disparate.] Here's the translation of the third song, "O Tod wie bitter bist du", taken from the apocryphal Book of Sirach:
""O death, how bitter is the remembrance of thee. O Death, how acceptable is thy sentence unto a man that is needy and that faileth in strength, that is in extreme old age and is distracted in all things, and that looks for no better lot, nor waiteth on better days! O death, how acceptable is thy sentence.""
Brahms's "German Requiem" - perhaps his most deathless music - was also composed at a time of personal grief, following the death of the composer's mother. But the Four Earnest Songs, even with their Biblical texts, are plainly less sanguine about any sort of human imperishability. They are beautifully, bitterly pessimistic.