Friday, September 11, 2015

Liederabend Special: Thomas Quasthoff

After pondering Lieder puns for far too long, Gentle Readers, I present to you the first post in a planned series exploring my library of art song discs, and the reasons they've made it into my modest collection. These reasons vary from careful selection, to discount-bin serendipity, to my inability to resist a mezzo-soprano singing Mahler. In the case of Thomas Quasthoff's A Romantic Songbook, it's a case of me looking at DG's First Choice series and declaring internally, "Why yes, this is indeed the thoughtfully curated and expertly performed German Lieder disc I need in my life!" Thanks to Quasthoff's mastery, and the subtle, surprising, knowing accompaniment of Justus Zeyen at the piano, this CD is often what I want for an unhurried, cliché-free tour of the German art song repertoire of the long nineteenth century.

In seeking a weakness in this disc, I'm forced to turn to the bonus track of "Danny Boy," and honestly, that's probably because I just don't like "Danny Boy." (I find it cloyingly sentimental.) The rest of the disc is a treat, as Quasthoff and Zeyen take the listener in roughly chronological order from the indispensable Schubert and Schumann to the late-romantic indulgences of Strauss, pausing with Mendelssohn, the thornier Wolf, and the lesser-known Loewe. As is (all too) well-known among my friends, family, and people I talk to at parties, I could rhapsodize about Lieder almost indefinitely. But I'll be selective. One of the reasons I like this disc is that it makes, in my opinion, a good point of entry for those trying to get to know the repertoire or the art form better. Quasthoff's subtlety and creativity are a delight to Lieder-nuts like me, while being less intimidating than, say, a Mahler cycle or three, and more varied than, say, a disc of Schubert songs.

Quasthoff makes the familiar "Heidenröslein" and "Die Forelle" into highlights of the Schubert selections offered here, the first reflective, the latter with a sense of moment-by-moment observation aided by Zeyen's treatment of the rippling brook in the piano part. Schumann's "Belsatzar" is given without any excessive histrionics, but ominous hissing to describe the flickering torches with which the tyrant defies midnight itself. (I do love Romantic melodrama.) Wolf's harmonies are handled with delicacy, Loewe's sweeping, atmospheric horror stories with an apt lack of it. If "Herr Oluf," a dark narrative about a bridegroom's encounter with the Erlkönig's daughter, doesn't raise your hackles, then I don't know what will. In taking on four of Richard Strauss' best-known songs ("Zueignung," "Allerseelen," "Heimliche Aufforderung," "Morgen!") Quasthoff is notable for his unusual restraint in their interpretation. Zeyen, too, handles Strauss' impassioned declarations with intimacy and tenderness. Taking these at a remarkably deliberate tempo allows these sometimes-overpowering songs to shine, sometimes in unexpected ways. And when it comes down to it, that's what I want from a Lieder disc: surprises, even in the most familiar places.

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