CD Review: Gillian Keith: bei Strauss

Gillian Keith, soprano; Simon Lepper, piano (Champs Hill Records)

11 November 2011 3.5 stars

Gillian KeithWith recordings devoted exclusively to Strauss's lieder pretty thin on the ground, Canadian soprano Gillian Keith's new release 'bei Strauss' should be welcomed by those who want to delve further into the Strauss repertoire than the Four Last Songs.  As well as the perennial favourites often used by sopranos to add a bit of sparkle to their recitals – Ständchen Op. 17 No. 2, Wiegenliedchen Op. 49 No.3 or the Fünf Lieder Op. 48, including the beautiful Winterliebe (often heard in its orchestral version) – Keith has decided to introduce her listeners to the less well-known 'Mädchenblumen' Op. 22 (1888) and 'Drei Lieder der Ophelia' Op. 67 (1918).  As she explains in a short message that precedes the liner notes, it was these two sets that 'seized her imagination' and, for her, lie 'at the heart' of the recital.

Before going on to consider those two works, it is worth pausing on the performance of Ständchen (Serenade), with which she opens the CD.  All the merits of her instrument are in evidence here: she has a delicate, self-contained voice that darts nimbly around the range with pin-point accuracy; and this is often complemented with subtle characterization of the words.  In this song she does a faster vibrato than elsewhere to suggest the quivering leaves, the purling stream, the trilling nightingale, metaphors for the of the lover trembling against the stillness of the night.  Another example is Schlagende Herzen Op. 29 No. 2 (Beating Hearts).  It tells of a boy dashing across fields and meadows to meet his sweetheart, his heart beating: 'Kling-klang schlug'.  Keith becomes ever more out of breath as the song progresses in apparent in sympathy with the boy, until the final verse when we realize she is short of breath because she is the sweetheart, and the boy is running towards her.

She seems to have chosen these individual songs to suit her voice and character, but in the song sets, where Strauss requires a range of mood and style, her limitations can become apparent.  The conceit of historian Felix Dahn's 'Mädchenblumen' is to liken various flowers with different kinds of girl.  Strauss's settings, while perhaps not up to the standard of the Fünf Lieder, are certainly better than one would expect from such twee material.  In Keith's interpretation of Kornblumen (Cornflowers) and Epheu (Ivy) one might miss the rich tone that sopranos like Martina Janková (on her CD 'Voyages', also released this year) bring to the songs.  Critically, though, she also lacks the greater range of expression both in dynamics and in freedom with the tempo, including local rubato.  Despite Strauss's indications 'espressivo' or 'sehr ruhig', Keith's Kornblumen shows a disappointing uniformity of tone throughout; whereas Janková's account is so moving she persuades that this really is vintage Strauss.  In the delicate Mohnblumen (Poppies) and the dreamy, ethereal Wasserrose (Waterlilly), however, Keith outshines the competition.  In the latter, there is plenty of variation in feeling and she achieves a wonderful floating quality by shifting in and out of time with the accompaniment – a light tinkling representing the moonlight kept absolutely steady by Simon Lepper.

The 'Drei Lieder der Ophelia' Op. 67 is, I believe, Strauss at his best, and the work – the three songs comprising a single unit – are just need the soprano to make a convincing enough case for them.  Again, Keith is only partially successful in her advocacy.  The words are the bawdy songs and nonsense rhymes that the half-mad Ophelia – her father murdered and dropped by her lover – sings in Act IV, Scene v of Hamlet in a translation by Karl Simrock.  (Brahms's 'Ophelia Lieder' WoO 22 use the same material, but in Schlegel's translation and divided up into five songs.)  It is Strauss's final foray into the fin-de-siècle obsession with the sexually frustrated hysteric, after doing the subject to death, quite literally, in Salome and Elektra.  In the first two songs, Keith doesn't get close to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's chilling rendition (on EMI with Geoffrey Parsons at the piano), in which she fully inhabits the state of mental derangement latent in Strauss's unusual harmonies.  Particularly in 'Wie erkenn ich mein Treulieb vor andern nun?', although she is almost whispering, you feel she is supressing much deeper emotions and is on the cusp of a violent outburst.  Keith, by contrast, is sweet and mournful: we certainly believe in her grief, but there is a disconnect between the madness in the piano part and her balanced, rational account of the vocal line.  There's never any danger that she's about to lose it.  The same haunting nostalgia does work perfectly in the third song, 'Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloss', but the problem is that it's now too similar to the mood of the other songs in the set.

Keith's voice is always pleasant to listen to and she excels in precisely executed coloratura.  She is, no doubt, employing a certain aesthetic of restraint to suit her voice type and this works well in the delicate, the sparkling and the haunting or mournful songs.  However, although there is some subtly crafted characterization, there is too little variation in colour to do full justice to Strauss's breadth of expression.

By Marc Brooks