Schumann: Dichterliebe; Brahms: Lieder

Simon Keenlyside, baritone; Malcolm Martineau, piano (Sony 88697 566892)

17 September 2009 4 stars

KeenlysideAs Simon Keenlyside flexes his vocal muscles reprising the role of Posa in the Royal Opera's Don Carlo, this disc serves as a timely reminder of his skills as an interpreter of lieder. Reunited with pianist Malcolm Martineau, with whom he recorded a pair of wonderful song discs for EMI Eminence – Schubert and Strauss – at the start of his career, he recaptures much of the ardour and youthful passion that made those early discs so enjoyable, not to mention his contribution to Graham Johnson's Schumann edition on Hyperion, including a rousing performance of the Kerner-Lieder Op.35.

Here we have a generously filled disc, with three quarters of an hour of Brahms, followed by an admirably passionate and individual Dichterliebe. It must be said, however, first impressions are not good, with Keenlyside sounding rather uncomfortable with the high tessitura of 'Nachtigallen Schwingen'. The recorded sound, too, is not ideal: the piano lacks focus, sounding muddy, while Keenlyside's voice comes across as rather fuzzy and veiled. As the programme gets underway, though, tthe ear adjusts and we can settle down to enjoy the artistry of this instinctive lieder singer.

Although Keenlyside's forays into the great baritone roles of the Italian repertoire have given the voice a bit more heft, it's still an instrument that is arguably better suited to this repertoire. His keen musical intelligence and flawless German are allied to a refreshing willingness to wear the heart on the sleeve, a welcome change from much of the understated performances of lieder that we hear more and more these days. We have a barnstorming 'Von ewiger Liebe', then, and there are other moments where the voice opens up thrillingly, such as in 'Wie rafft' ich mich auf in der Nacht.' He captures the quiet passion of 'Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen' beautifully and if I was not entirely convinced by the switches between head voice and full voice in 'An eine Äolsharfe', Keenlyside largely turns in moving accounts of the more pensive songs, including a deeply touching 'Feldeinsamkeit'.

When we get on to Dichterliebe, there's a refreshing directness to Keenlyside's performance. Some surprising choices of tempo raise doubts which – and this says something for the quality of both singer and pianist – are soon allayed. So a swift 'Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen' still manages to capture the song's dreamy intimacy, while an 'Ein jüngling liebt ein Mädchen' which seems initially rather flat succeeds through delight in story-telling.

Comparisons between the enormously refined performance of this cycle by Gerald Finley are telling, Although Keenlyside's is a little more generalised, the emotion that sometimes seemed missing with Finley is here in spades. Keenlyside is possibly at an advantage being a higher voice – and can manage a thrilling if inauthentic top A in 'Ich grolle nicht' – but the way he throws himself into the character and the songs is highly persuasive, too. And that's not to say there's a lack of subtlety in his approach: the variety of expression he achieves in 'Wenn ich in deine Augen seh' ' is hugely impressive, as is 'Ich hab' im Traum geweinet', while he manages the numbness of 'Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen' extremely well, rising to unexpected passion at the final line.

Throughout, Martineau is a worthy accomplice, and even if I found him strangely reticent in the bigger moments of 'Die alten, bösen Lieder', his scene-setting in the intros and postludes is expert, as one would expect.

In a hugely competitive field, Keenlyside's Dichterliebe is an impressive achievement; add it to the fine Brahms and we are left with a very enjoyable disc. He says little that's new about the cycle but presents an impassioned, traditional recording backed up by his trademark, burnished tone.

By Hugo Shirley