Friday, September 25, 2015

Liedsommer in autumn: Michaela Schuster's Morgen!

Michaela Schuster, photographed by Nikola Stege
I could just tell you that this CD is endorsed by Brigitte Fassbaender and have done, Gentle Readers. But I can't pass up an excuse to enthuse about lieder, and I also wholeheartedly recommend Michaela Schuster's creative, intimate, and sensual recital disc, Morgen! The ambitious selection of lieder--generous samplings of Brahms, R. Schumann, Reger, and Strauss--along with Schuster's reputation as a Wagnerian, led me to expect sweeping magnificence. What Schuster presents, partnered by Markus Schlemmer on the piano, is something much more intimate, and invariably interesting. The disc was recorded during the Eppaner Liedsommer of 2012, and the production process does not appear to have been aggressively interventionist. (Either coughing has been edited out, or the audience was silent with a quasi-miraculous silence.) Voice and piano are sweetly resonant, with spontaneity in interpretation taking precedence over polish. I wish I knew enough about the technology of recording to explain this better; I only know that suddenly hearing Brahms as though performed in a living room was so unexpectedly soothing that I practically melted into the sofa.

The excellencies of Schuster's interpretations are many. Her treatment of text is thoughtful throughout, sensual and expressive. I need hardly add that I was delighted by her German Consonants; she can give a good, resonant "Schmerz!" with the best. (The lieder texts themselves are provided in the accompanying booklet; translations are not.) At the very top of her range, Schuster's sound turns thin, and is somewhat less expressive than elsewhere, but it never sounds forced or strained. Her sometimes-prominent vibrato may not be to all tastes (as I discovered when my sister wandered in and out of the room where I was listening), but she held me in thrall. The sensitivity and nuance of Schlemmer were also a constantly renewed treat.

Quite a few of the selections on the disc were unfamiliar to me (the Strauss, as well as the Reger!) and Schuster treated standards of the repertoire also with respect and creativity (full track list here.) The treatment of Brahms' "Ständchen" was notable in this regard, both for its lack of sentimentality and its quiet, tender wistfulness, as was the hushed wonder lavished on "Die Mainacht." The tempi chosen by Schuster are unusually deliberate, with revelatory results, not least in Schumann's exquisite "Widmung." (I don't care how often that's done; I love it.) One of the great virtues of Schuster's interpretation--for me--is that she gives the highly-wrought, idealizing Romantic language of the lieder an interiority that makes them feel both intimate and honest. Especially in the Strauss, such an approach argues for the beauty even of evanescence. Schuster's rich tonal range contributes to this, from a genuinely profound "Requiem" (Schumann) through the fevered and decidedly profane imaginings of Reger. I especially loved the brooding darkness--and glorious low notes--of "Es schläft ein stiller Garten." Strauss' "Ruhe, mine Seele" was another standout for me, with the anticipation of rest and forgetfulness made to seem unexpectedly and inevitably ominous. The pairing of "Befreit" and "Morgen!" to conclude the recital struck me as remarkably bold, and remarkably successful. Schuster and Schlemmer take the familiar declarations at an unusually slow tempo, and with unusual restraint and dynamic nuance. The results are exquisite, and Schuster's careful, loving use of text is a special delight. I could go on; but I'll conclude by encouraging fellow lieder-lovers to make the discovery of this disc for themselves.

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