Charles Petzold

Lieder Crazy

October 15, 2006
New York, NY

I've been listening to a lot of lieder recently, pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. In retrospect, it's not hard to see how I became afflicted with this disorder.

I've always been a fan of Schubert's Winterreise, and of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder and Songs of a Wayfarer. These are works commonly regarded as peaks of lieder composition, so I guess I didn't feel the need to get deeper into the genre.

A few years ago I started exploring the chamber music of Brahms (previously knowing only the symphonies and Requiem) and discovered many treasures. I started being intrigued by Brahms' musical progress through his life, and decided to try to assemble a "complete Brahms" (or more precisely, all the works he assigned opus numbers to). After purchasing a number of additional CDs and ripping at 256 kbps, I assembled nearly 5 gigabytes (44 hours) of MP3's, which I then burned onto 8 CDs in opus number order, and also carry around on my Toshiba Tablet.

Here I am relaxing at DevConnections listening to Brahms on my gigantic MP3 player:

(Here's Paul Mooney's blog entry where I found the photo.)

Well, it turns out Brahms wrote a lot of lieder — about 25% of the works published with opus numbers are collections of solo lieder (about 200 songs total), comprising about 18% of total listening time. Since I enjoyed many of these works, I began exploring more of Schubert's lieder (he wrote over 600) and, more recently, Hugo Wolf. (Wolf is commonly regarded as a minor composer, but in the lieder world, he is a god.)

On Thursday, Deirdre and I went to the intimate and woody Zankel Hall for a delightful lieder recital by soprano Dorothea Röschmann accompanied by Graham Johnson. Ms. Röschmann is currently in town singing Ilia in Mozart's Idomeneo at the Metropolitan Opera, and Mr. Johnson is a well-known and intelligent accompanist, having masterminded the complete Schubert lieder recordings for Hyperion (37 CDs) and currently recording the complete Schumann (Robert and Clara) lieder.

The program spanned about a century beginning with lieder of Schubert and continuing after intermission with Mahler and Alban Berg.

Although Ms. Röschmann is a soprano, her voice has a deep rich tone that's actually more reminiscent of a mezzo-soprano, and ideally suited for the the scary regions of the human psyche that lieder often probes. She lets her voice do the speaking, and performs with virtually no arm gestures, and just a few sly head tosses to punctuate the texts.

The first half of the recital was all Schubert, but focused on songs set to texts by just two authors: the three "Ellens Gesang" from Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake, two Mignon songs from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and two Gretchen songs from Faust, concluding with the ever-popular "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel."

After intermission, she continued with three Mahler songs set to texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. These songs are more commonly performed (or at least recorded) in their orchestral versions. The orchestrations are so wonderful (this is, after all, Mahler) that the piano versions sound downright deficient. It would sure be fun seeing Ms. Röschmann perform these songs with an orchestra. Her voice is certainly strong enough.

The recital concluded, rather anti-climactically, with Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs dating from about 1905. I can't help thinking these are minor works, more interesting in foreshadowing the great opera composer rather than being substantial in themselves. Ms. Röschmann almost convinced me I was wrong about the Berg (but really made me want to hear her sing some Wolf).