Hyperion's ongoing series of Lieder by Richard Strauss may be a little more modest in scope than the label's legendary Schubert edition, or even the Schumann that came to its final, eleventh volume just last month. However, it's no doubt just as fascinating, if not more so, given the fact that a handful of hit songs have totally obscured several other gems in his output.
With Roger Vignoles at the helm, the programmes are carefully chosen and amplified by his notes, which might be brief compared to those produced for Graham Johnson for his series, but are informative and witty by turns. Vignoles is aware of some of the weaker works – Strauss himself admitted to a note-spinning tendency when inspiration deserted him – but has an evident fondness even for them. He and the two singers on this disc, baritone Christopher Maltman and bass Alastair Miles, come together to produce performances that are often compelling in the great songs and usually convincing in the lesser works.
Maltman, who sings the majority of the songs here, kicks off with five songs from Op.15, all but the opening Michaelangelo 'Madrigal' settings of poetry by the Munich-based polymath, Adolf von Schack. Dating from 1886 they may not be as extravagantly precocious or consistently as inspired as the Op.10 songs, but include the stormy 'Winternacht', despatched with aplomb, and the masterly 'Heimkehr'.
The programme then takes us worlds away from the best known, soprano-centric Lieder in songs that set more politically engaged poetry that evokes sometimes bleakly modern writing from Strauss. This is particularly the case with the Dehmel settings from the late 1890s. The astonishingly brief and aphoristic 'Stiller Gang' is unique in Strauss's output for employing, like Brahms's songs Op.91, a solo viola as well as voice (James Boyd here) while 'Der Arbeitsmann' is a grim commentary on the bondage of modern, industrial life in the working class. 'Lied an meinen Sohn' seeks to capture all the romance of a younger generation's aspirations for reform; Vignoles tells us that 'as an exercise in musical hyperbole [it] is hugely enjoyable to perform' and he and Maltman give it their all. 'Am Ufer' finds Strauss back in the more overtly poetic vein familiar from his later, much better-known Dehmel setting, 'Waldseligkeit'. Here Maltman's vibrato starts to broaden at times, as he sustains the soft, floated vocal line, but it's a touching rendition.
The broadly painted lyricism of 'Des Dichters Abendgang' (an Uhland setting from 1900) shows Vignoles and Maltman again in ardent mode and while the baritone's voice can lack focus in its higher register, he turns in a thoroughly engaging performance. The acid satire of 'Das Lied des Steinklopfers' (definite shades of Wolf here) is beautifully captured while Maltman's two final numbers see rare settings of 'great' poetry: the beautifully understated Goethe setting 'Gefunden' and 'Mit deinen blauen Augen', a Heine setting from 1906 that looks forward to the final Octavian-Sophie duet in Rosenkavalier.
The bass songs show Strauss once again in predominantly serious vein, and Alastair Miles brings a wonderful gravitas to his readings. 'Im Spätboot' is a sober affair, but all the more affecting for its economy, not perhaps what one would expect from Strauss a year after Salome. The four songs from Op.87 are made up of three pensive and expansive Rückert settings (from 1929 and 1935), leavened with a boisterous, earlier setting of a poem from Goethe's West-östliche Diwan, 'Erschaffen und Beleben'. Miles brings the same steady, authoritative delivery and seriousness of purpose to the Rückert, rising to the occasional emotional outbursts magnificently (particularly in the lovely 'Im Sonnenschein' that finishes the disc), while he and Vignoles make the most of the sometimes arch humour of 'Erschaffen und Beleben'.
Whatever the merits or faults of Strauss's extensive song output, even the least inspired tell us something about his often contradictory artistic make-up. There are a considerable number of gems hidden away, too, in the shadow of the justly-famous hits. For that reason, and with fine, committed performances, this series on Hyperion is set to become another invaluable addition to the catalogue.
By Hugo Shirley