Diana Damrau: Liszt Lieder

Damrau and Deutsch Do Liszt Full Justice

Jason Victor Serinus on December 16, 2011
Diana Damrau: Liszt Lieder
Diana Damrau: Liszt Lieder

This is a wonderful album. Arriving just two months after soprano Diana Damrau’s disc of orchestral lieder (songs) by Richard Strauss received the German Phono Akademie’s Echo-Klassik award for “Lieder Recording of the Year,” this fresh collaboration, with pianist Helmut Deutsch, yields 19 treasurable performances of Liszt lieder. Each is approached with the same passion, care, and respect that distinguish the finest lieder interpretations of the recorded era.

Liszt being Liszt, many of his songs are grand miniatures, filled with soaring lines and dramatic emotional shifts. The pattern is set by the first song, Der Fischerknabe (The fisher lad). Taking her lead from Deutsch’s rippling arpeggios, Damrau begins with a smile on her voice. Her honeyed tones, produced as if she were a respectful observer coming upon a young lad asleep on the shore of a lake, are perfumed with innocence.

Listen To The Music

Diana Damrau: Der Fischerknabe

Diana Damrau: Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh
Hans Hotter: Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh

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Damrau’s flawless, hushed rise to the word Paradise casts its spell, giving no warning of the tragedy that is to follow. As Deutsch’s playing becomes more intense, the voice becomes weightier and far more animated. The waters threaten. Then comes silence, a silence that speaks as eloquently as the waves of sound that preceded it. In three short lines, the spell is cast. To an exquisitely floated high A flat, the lad is dragged beneath the waters, and calm returns to the surface.

Equally telling is Liszt’s setting of Goethe’s Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh (Over every peak there is peace). Schubert famously transformed this verse, which he set as Wanderers Nachtlied II, into an extraordinary testament to the peace that comes with death. Here Liszt is remarkably subdued (for Liszt), but he cannot resist transforming the silence of the birds into the ominous call of death. Where Schubert is content to rest, Liszt chills us with the soft toll of church bells. (To clarify Liszt’s worldview, I’ve included a comparison with what I consider bass-baritone Hans Hotter’s finest recording of Schubert’s setting, made in 1942 with Michael Raucheisen as accompanist.)

Just occasionally on this CD, as in Der du von dem Himmel bist (Thou that art from heaven), Damrau either drops into chest voice or intentionally stresses her tone to the point where it loses its prettiness. All this, though, is done in the service of art. Deutsch is right there with her, providing every pearly tone and billowing flourish that the music demands.

A great deal of intelligence is at work here. Those of us who have followed the blossoming career of soprano Leah Crocetto, who often programs Pace non trovo (I find no peace) from Liszt’s Three Petrarch Sonnets — the song that helped her win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions — will be especially fascinated by Damrau’s very different but equally valid approach. Then we’ll turn to Liszt’s two different settings of Goethe’s Freudvoll und leidvoll (Joyful and sorrowful), marveling first at how the composer and Damrau-cum-Deutsch make such big drama out of so little, then at how the singer conveys the pensive beginning of the second version with something approaching lazy tone.

With each song, new revelations appear. Can anyone fail to be entranced by the rapt attention with which Damrau weaves the spell of the Loreley? This disc displays lieder singing and playing at their finest.

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