Diana Damrau and Xavier de Maistre: "Recital"
Songs by Debussy, Fauré, Schumann, Strauss. Virgin Classics 98491698, 148 mins. (including documentary), no subtitles
Filmed at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden in 2009, this ninety-six-minute song recital features soprano Diana Damrau accompanied entirely by harpist Xavier de Maistre, former solo harpist of the Vienna Philharmonic. Do not be put off by the DVD's hideously amateurish cover art; with Damrau in gleaming voice throughout a program of well-loved gems by Debussy, Fauré, Schumann and Strauss (the Bach–Gounod "Ave Maria" is also included as an encore), this recital is a keeper.
It is rare that such an exquisite voice is matched by both extraordinary technical facility and keen musical intelligence, but this is indeed the case with Damrau; she can do anything she wants with any note at any given time. Whether employing her silvery soprano to its fullest or caressing the gentlest of high notes, Damrau impresses the listener with the wide range of vocal colors at her command. She also pays careful attention to the songs' texts and avoids the temptation to overact (as she has a tendency to do in opera). Fauré's "Adieu," for example, is imbued at its conclusion with just the right touch of reluctant resolve to seem believable.
Harpist Xavier de Maistre does a superb job playing his transcriptions of what were already, in many cases, very challenging piano parts. Some of these pieces work particularly well on the harp: the Debussy set positively sparkles, and Schumann's "Nussbaum" and Strauss's "Wiegenlied" (with Maistre's page-turns supplied by Damrau herself) flow gorgeously. Songs with chordal accompaniment are less successful: Fauré's "Après un rêve" does not float as it should; Schumann's delightful "Er ist's" sounds rather labored; and the harp cannot adequately support the vocal line in Strauss's "Nichts" or Schumann's "Widmung," both of which benefit from the fullness and sustaining power of the piano in their original versions. Two harp solos are also included — Debussy's "Première Arabesque" and Fauré's Impromptu, the fireworks finale of which is undermined by wrong notes. Unfortunately, a wrong harp note also mars Damrau's magical "wogenblauen" phrase in Strauss's "Morgen."
Renowned television director Brian Large has captured the concert with multiple cameras, providing varied up-close images of the artists as they perform. The harp work is particularly revealing and a joy to watch, while the footage of Damrau is sometimes so close that the singer is reduced to only a tightly-framed singing head; this is a shame, as Damrau is a supremely expressive artist who comes across beautifully without such extreme "assistance."
In addition to the recital, Virgin's disc features a fifty-two-minute documentary, Diva Divina, which follows Damrau around the world as she performs in operas such as Mozart's Don Giovanni and Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia. Along the way, the soprano discusses her development as a singer (we learn of a horrifying setback when one of her vocal cords was damaged when she was intubated for a non-vocal surgical procedure), interspersed with recollections from teachers, family and colleagues. This intimate glimpse into Damrau's world confirms the impression left by her recital: the gracious, high-energy "diva" is enchanting both on- and offstage.
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