Diana Damrau and Helmut Deutsch: "Liszt Lieder"
Notes, texts and translations. Virgin Classics 50999 0709282 4
Diana Damrau's recital of songs by Franz Liszt is a tour de force. Her glinting, crystalline tone is essentially unfazed by the vast range and hairpin turns of Liszt's vocal writing, and she confronts the poetry's interpretive challenges like long-awaited opportunities. Where opportunities are lacking, she invents some.
The smart program forms unusual clusters of certain songs, starting with three that have associations with water and the supernatural. Actually only two of them, "Der Fischerknabe" and "Die Loreley," are unequivocally fantastical, with their visions of destructive water nymphs. Sandwiched between them, counterintuitively, is Liszt's setting of an ironical Heine poem about obsessive love, better known from Schumann's Dichterliebe, "Im Rhein, im schönen Strome." Damrau's revisionist interpretation of this song — suggesting mystery through ominous weighting of certain words and a lugubrious tempo — justifies this linking of the three numbers and prompts us to reconsider the original "Im Rhein." Is Heine's beloved a destructive siren like Lorelei? By extension, is romantic love essentially destructive?
Another triad builds up a little narrative around the composer's two divergent settings of Goethe's brief "Freudvoll und Leidvoll" (Joyful and Sorrowful). While Liszt was an inveterate second-guesser, leaving two versions of many of his songs, recitalists rarely offer a direct comparison, as Damrau does so energetically here, drawing on her obvious taste for contrasts, whether in tempo, dynamics or coloring. Liszt's original "Freudvoll" was more ebullient; the radical rewrite five years later became slower and more reflective, as if the implied speaker had also matured — and suffered. The two versions are separated on this program by a particularly harsh, feverish performance of "Vergiftet sind meine Lieder" (My Songs Are Poisoned), after Heine, in which even the breathing adds to the drama. In this sequence, and thanks to stark extremes in Damrau's singing (with ripe playing by Helmut Deutsch of Liszt's always elaborate accompaniments), the triptych comes to suggest an evolving character study with a "before" and "after," an implied story of loss and pain.
The performances of big, episodic numbers such as "Die drei Zigeuner," "Es war ein König in Thule" and "Der du von dem Himmel bist" (in its expanded second version) are also provocative. At times we seem to be hearing a competitive concerto in which the voice and piano have alternating bravura sections, and it's not always clear which party prevails. Deutsch, dashing and refined by turns, takes center stage in the rollicking czardas of the song of the three Gypsies and the stormy bass passages in "Thule." As if in response, Damrau goes all out for intensity even at the cost of coherence; she seems more angry than celebratory in Liszt's salute to the Gypsies' hedonism.
Curiously, too, the three sonnet settings in Petrarch's original Italian remain a little remote. Damrau is more brilliant but less winning than tenor Matthew Polenzani on his Liszt CD (Hyperion 67782, OPERA NEWS,February 2011), and earlier recorded versions of the sonnets by Thomas Hampson and Thomas Quasthoff seem almost infinitely lush and pliant in comparison to a certain lack of intimacy in the soprano's work. But Damrau shines in other gentle selections (sadly, without offering the lovely "Ah! Quand je dors" on this disc). The mezza voce treatment of "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh" is magical, and "Es muss ein Wunderbares sein," a relatively modest song, strikes the perfect light note.
DAVID J. BAKER
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