JWR Articles: Live Event - Dichterliebe and Brahms Lieder (Featured artists: Thomas Quasthoff, Hélène Grimaud) - August 19, 2010

Dichterliebe and Brahms Lieder

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DGG 139109
The power of two

The 2010 Festival’s theme of “Eros” took on a further, most welcome dimension with this lieder recital by Thomas Quasthoff and Hélène Grimaud. Those lucky enough to be in the room could feel the love by the musicians not only for the music they were performing, but for each other. Professional respect is generally the norm when two distinguished artists share the stage. Occasionally one feels a few moments where compromise has been employed, keeping both egos intact but diluting the result. Here, there was none of that, giving the music an overall feeling of unanimity that deserved pin-dropping silence from the first measure.

Sadly, many in the capacity crowd seemed to be breathing their last—always managing to insert their unwanted bronchial commentaries at only the most intimate moments. In desperation after the break, the exceedingly good-natured bass-baritone chided his audience to “cough together [with me] after the concert.” That had its effect for a couple of songs from the value-added Op. 94 (not on the program, Quasthoff decided that, in his words, “the program was too short—like me” so inserted the extra music to open the second half), but before you could say “she’s right behind me” a patron just inches away launched into an eruption of lung-clearing expletives that were only overshadowed by the inevitable search for a lozenge. Will we ever have a concert unmarred by the human condition?

Dichterliebe (The Loves of a Poet) captured the imagination and hearts of the room from the understated delicacy of “Im wunderschönen Montat Mai” (“In the wonderful month of May”) and seldom released its grasp until Grimaud’s beautifully crafted solo farewell slipped away magically into the night. Along the tumultuous journey one could quibble with a slight unevenness in sections of repeated eighths, lack of weight at key movements of the bass line which drives the harmonic plan, but the ensemble was extraordinary and Quasthoff’s control verged on perfection.

In Op. 94, “Mit vierzig Jahren” (“At forty years”) was notable for the singer’s splendid low register and a spectacular (yet subtle, that’s the key) change of register in “Steig auf, geliebter Schattenvs” (“Rise, beloved shade”); Grimaud provided an ideal backdrop of brooding syncopation for “Mein herz ist schwer” (“My heart is heavy”) before her partner infused “Sapphische Ode” (“Sapphic Ode”) with a warm, loving tone, capped by seemingly effortless touches of falsetto. The punchy “Kein Haus, keine Heimat” (“No house, no homeland”) literally brought the brief cycle to a close almost as quickly as it began, clocking in faster the Chopin’s fabled “Minute Waltz.”

When it was their turn to shine, Brahms’ Nine Lieder and Songs brought the disparate texts (three sources) together in a thoughtful, loving way that spoke as much about the music as the personal turmoil that the never-married, often-smitten composer struggled with then and throughout his life. Pivotal to everything are the lines in No. 4, Und jener Mensch, der ich gewesen, und den ich längst / Mit einem andern Ich veretauschte, wo ist er nun? (And that man that I once was, whom long ago / I exchanged for another self—where is he now?). Both performers caught its essence and used its impetus to fuel No. 5, Wehe, so willst du mich wieder (Alas, so you would again).

If there were a few seconds of uneasiness in pitch thus far, none of those mattered with the heartfelt repeated declamations of the “blissfulness” in the closing song where Grimaud’s exquisitely delicate touch was the at one with Quasthoff’s sublime understatement of love, even in death.

The delighted crowd was favoured with a pair of encores (generous to a fault after the cacophony of lung association contenders’ unwanted interjections), probably played more for themselves than for their devoted fans—that’s what special friends are for. JWR

Historical Perspective

Dichterliebe, Op. 48
DGG 139109, 1965
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus
Five stars

Heinrich Heine’s poems of despairing, at times insane love had obvious appeal to Robert Schumann and, through the incredibly subtle artistry of Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus, the all-too-rare ideal realization of both the text and the music has been lovingly captured on this disc.

The pain and suffering of the creators is unforgettably heard (No. 7 “Ich grolle nicht”—“I bear no grudge”) on the fabled baritone’s top A that sears any heart within its range; just moments before his “Ich liebe dich” (No. 4 “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’”—“When I look in your eyes”) is one of the most intimate expressions of “I love you” ever recorded.

Demus not only has a splendid ear for balance but also brings a complete understanding of the harmonic implications, structure and texture to the cycle, making this performance a model for others to attempt to emulate. True dynamics (No. 6), bass lines that are aware of the delayed resolution (No. 10; Schumann’s numerous Phrygian cadences give the writing much of its magic and direction) coupled with bone-dry staccato and bump-free legato (the closing piano solo bids an emotional adieu that allows listeners to quietly reflect with the artists on their own loves lost) combine with Fischer-Dieskau’s unfailing dramatic instincts, creating a completely artistic whole from two especially able parts. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

A must-do excursion is the round trip to Mount Pilatus. Lake boat, cog-wheel train, cable car, gondola, feet! and city bus are all utilized along this half-day trip to the peak at 7,000 feet. JWR

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Featured artists - Thomas Quasthoff, Hélène Grimaud
Historical perspective performers - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus
Dichterliebe, Op. 48 - Robert Schumann
Nine Lieder and Songs, Op.32 - Johannes Brahms
5 Lieder for Low Voice, Op.94 - Johannes Brahms
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
Deutsche Grammophon Lucerne Festival The International Travel Writers Alliance
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