Few Lieder recital CDs provide as much enjoyment as this release from soprano Anja Harteros with pianist Wolfram Rieger. Planned originally as a programme for a live concert series, and then subsequently committed to disc under studio conditions, Harteros said, in an interview printed in the accompanying notes, 'it had to be a varied and interesting selection with no over-long items while all fitting together somehow'. The stated aim has certainly been achieved, with selections from Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Strauss, including some of the most popular songs in the repertoire alongside some less frequently interpreted gems.
Having first come to international prominence through winning the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1999, Harteros has established herself as one of the most sought after lyric sopranos of her generation on the opera stage, in a repertoire that spans from Handel to Strauss, via Verdi and Wagner with a healthy dose of Mozart. Her expansive style which allows her voice to soar to such magical effect in the theatre is brought to bear on her Lieder performances, affording them a sense of generosity and sincerity. Her timbre has a velvety softness, even when deployed at its quite considerable full tilt, so that the ear is never assaulted, and the ever present silky legato is the mark not just of a fine musician, but also of an expert vocal technician.
Harteros therefore has quite extraordinary expressive possibilities at her disposal, and I am pleased to say that she uses dynamics, rubato and phrasing to form the basis for the creation of interest in her highly individual interpretations, rather than fussing over details in the text as she goes along, as many modern Lieder singers seem wont to do. The result is not just very beautiful singing, but also a real sense of the architecture of each song and the musical-emotional journeys through them.
This quality is particularly evident in the group of four Strauss songs, each of which feels like one long arc from beginning to end. 'Befreit', for instance, can sometimes fail to hold one's attention until a sudden passionate climax seemingly out of nowhere, but on this recording the massive appoggiatura on 'weinen' feels keenly motivated, the only possible response to what has gone before. The four verses of 'Die Nacht' flow from each other as one unbroken chain of logical, consequent thoughts, although each is not without its own internal ebb and flow as Harteros deftly shapes the phrases, underpinned by the constant quaver movement in the piano. None of this is to say that Harteros neglects to paint the text when called for. For example, she highlights the word 'Silber' in the third verse, but with a subtlety that does not detract from the line.
Some may find the romantic approach to the Haydn and Beethoven pieces to be at odds with the more conventional, crystalline treatments of these composers to which we are now used, but it breathes new life into the music and increases its expressivity. Beethoven's 'An die Hoffnung' in particular benefits from a singer of Harteros's skill and intelligence, its endless surface variety, metrical changes and complex through-composed structure presenting many challenges for singer and pianist alike. Rieger proves particularly adept at creating atmosphere and accompanies with rare sensitivity both to the poetry and the mechanics of the human voice. Thankfully, both artists are equally capable of disarming simplicity, demonstrated to great effect in the second Beethoven selection, 'Ich liebe dich' which receives the direct treatment warranted by its title.
Perhaps surprisingly for such an operatic artist, Harteros keeps a lid on the drama of Schubert's great early song 'Gretchen am Spinnrade' which simmers, rather than boils, until the final few phrases. Toning down the exclamation of 'Und ach, sein Kuss!' again allows for a greater sense of direction through the song, so that Gretchen's final cry of 'an seinen Küssen Vergehen sollt!' gets the build up it needs and hence packs the emotional punch it should.
The sympathetic artistic relationship between both artists is in evidence on every track, but it is most clearly demonstrated in the Schumann selection. Even in the 'Venetianisches Lied Nr.2' where the piano does little more than vamp, the textural variety with which the accompaniment is dispatched matches the nuances in the poem, and the approach to the rubato from the singer and pianist comes across almost as if they are one and the same person.
Similar qualities in Rieger's playing come to the fore in Brahms's surprisingly classical setting of 'Dein blaues Auge' where he both supports the singer and paints the mood through the complexity of his approach to the simple accompaniment in the score. Elsewhere in the Brahms group, Rieger's virtuosity has the opportunity to shine, not least in the large-scale accompaniment of the title track, 'Von ewiger Liebe'. It makes a thrilling close to the programme, with the surging urgency achieved in the third verse yielding to some beautiful piano singing from Harteros which then builds once more to an ecstatic declaration of the final line. Like every other song on the disc, it finds the ideal balance between extrovert and introvert, involves one in a clear emotional journey and, above all, leaves one wanting to hear more of Harteros's ravishing voice.
By John Woods