Sunday, April 30, 2017

Franz Schubert; Johannes Brahms - Schwanengesang; Vier ernste Gesänge (Thomas Quasthoff)


Composer: Franz Schubert; Johannes Brahms
  • (01-14) Schubert - Schwanengesang, D. 957
  • (15-18) Brahms - Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121

Thomas Quasthoff, baritone
Justus Zeyen, piano
Date: 2001
Label: Deutsche Grammophon




Thomas Quasthoff’s fine account of Schubert’s Schwanengesang D. 957 joins a distinguished group of existing baritonal renderings of some of the composer’s darker, emotionally intense, and interpretively difficult songs.’s review archive contains two of the more notable–Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s EMI traversal (type Q3138 in Search Reviews) and a relatively recent offering from Michael Volle on Naxos (type Q707). Quasthoff’s rich-toned and warmly expressive voice fits right into the character and texture of many of these works, taking on just the right combinations of forcefulness and lyricism in the most dramatic selections–“Kriegers Ahnung” (Warrior’s Foreboding) and “In der Ferne” (Far Away), for example. The delivery perhaps isn’t as silky-smooth and effortless sounding as either of the above-mentioned singers, but it more than makes up for that in its sheer earnestness and sincerity.

Schubert’s at his best here in fashioning accompaniments that support the texts–either in the overtly characterized “rushing brooks” and “torrents” and “whispering breezes” or in more abstract suggestions of mood (“Warrior’s Foreboding”), and pianist Justus Zeyen is more than up to the not inconsiderable challenges of balance both within the piano parts and relative to the singer. Of course, Schubert didn’t intend these 14 songs as a cycle, nor did he give the set its title (a publisher did, after the composer’s death), but they all were written during the last year of his life and belong to no other group, so the collection makes a certain amount of sense even though it has no overarching structure or logic. However, when you hear Quasthoff perform these pieces, it’s so easy to just enjoy the voice and the drama in the interpretations, all governed by a commanding, confident technique, that the question of whether or not the songs should be sung together becomes moot.

And then come the four Brahms songs, which may never have been performed more knowingly, or with greater ease and naturalness in the integration of words and melody. There’s no over-dramatization or undue passion in the inflection–just what sounds like a consistent and deeply felt personal utterance. (Incidentally, Quasthoff’s affinity for Brahms is further exemplified in his earlier DG recording of rarely heard works, also reviewed here–type Q1217). Sonically, this disc is an example of what happens when everything goes right–singer and pianist are in ideal balance and the piano’s full range is reproduced with sparkling, clear high register notes and full-bodied bass (listen to the treble arpeggios contrasted with the rumbling low notes in “Die Stadt”, for example). Just when I start to wonder (and be grateful for) what motivates major record labels to continue to issue song recital recordings (how big could the audience for these things be?) I hear a disc like this one and hope that the answer has something to do with the eternal, uniquely communicative power of singer and song, and the inextinguishable inevitability of this fundamental form of music-making–forces that ensure a positive future for such projects. Wishful thinking? Perhaps–and just to be sure, you should snap this up as soon as possible! [8/18/2001]

-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday

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Franz Schubert (31 January 1797 – 19 November 1828) was an Austrian composer who was extremely prolific during his short lifetime. His output consists of over six hundred secular vocal works (mainly Lieder), seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music and a large body of chamber and piano music. Today, Schubert is ranked among the greatest composers of the late Classical era and early Romantic era and is one of the most frequently performed composers of the early nineteenth century. His music is characterized by pleasing tunes while still has "a great wealth of technical finesse".


Johannes Brahms (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897) was a German composer and pianist. In his lifetime, Brahms's popularity and influence were considerable. Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms is often considered both a traditionalist and an innovator. His music is firmly rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the Baroque and Classical masters. Within his meticulous structures is embedded, however, a highly romantic nature.


Thomas Quasthoff (born November 9, 1959 in Hildesheim, West Germany) is a German bass-baritone. Quasthoff has a range of musical interest from the Baroque cantatas of Bach, to Romantic lieder, and solo jazz improvisations. Born with severe birth defects, Quasthoff is 1.34 m tall, and has phocomelia. He has won several awards, including 2 Grammies for his recordings with Anne Sofie von Otter and Claudio Abbado. In January 2012, Quasthoff announced his retirement from public performance.


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