Lieder (Fischer-Dieskau, Eschenbach)
Fischer-Dieskau's accompanists recall Fred Astaire's dancing-partners. Some were ideally matched, like Ginger Rogers; those of unusual stature obligingly modified it, like Cyd Charisse. Each one contributed a different personal element which changed the properties of the compound. Christoph Eschenbach is a considerable artist in his own right; but his playing though certainly individual and vital is essentially adaptable. The piano sound is rather lacking in full strength and resonance (to my ears it is a notch or two under-recorded). It remains consistently clear and evocative in its solo moments; thus the postlude of Op. 25 No. 6 is an admirably neat and spirited way of polishing off a drinking song. In partnership however the sensitive keyboard touch sometimes has more distinction than distinctness, which arguably turns the Schumann song-style (i.e. piano melody doubled by the voice) inside out. More objectively, this degree of restraint, whether in sound-balance or performance, can disturb the required dynamics or even the structure. At the beginning of Op. 25 No. 15, for example, the voice's piano is louder than the piano's forte. Again, the left-hand octaves at the reprise or Op. 39 No. 2 need to be clearly heard, because they are there to symbolize a sleeper and more intense statement of the opening theme. One possible consequence, however, is wholly good. Fischer-Dieskau himself is far more restrained than usual; he can have his say without having to raise his voice. There are very few of those sudden jabs of injected expression, which can be quite painful. Instead we hear the unaffectedly relaxed accents of middle age; and the corresponding mezza voce has its innate beauty of tone enhanced by the wisdom of experience. As a sample, note how fetchingly the sighing airs of Der Nussbaum can be flighted and floated on one breath. Such manifest mastery is deployed not only in the Eichendorff Liederkreis Op. 39 but also in other less familiar but very varied and attractive repertory front Schumann's great song year of 1840. So this set should certainly appeal to Lieder-lovers in general; and students of musical evolution will be able to identify many missing links between Schubert and Wolf, together with a direct ancestor of Mahler (Der Soldat, Op. 40 No. 3.).
I am less persuaded about the basic Schumann appeal of these performances. The lack of keyboard dominance sounds to me like a negative print of the music; the real picture in its true colours needs a further creative process of development, as in the justly renowned Britten/ Pears Dichterliebe (Decca SET270-1, 7/65). Some of the tempi too suggest a certain lack of empathy for the Schumann song idiom. Thus Der Page (Op. 30 No. 2) sounds impossibly lethargic to me. A page can surely hold up a train without corning to a halt. Conversely Dem roten Röslein Op. 27 No. 2 is rushed past like the Flying Scotsman, which is no way to express Robert Burns's "My love is like a red reel rose". But no doubt assessments of tempo have a subjective aspect; and any misgivings on such scores may well be outweighed his practice by the many impressive accounts of moving and memorable music, in good-quality recording, that this set contains. The balance remains in favour, I think, even when the usual further deductions are made for inadequate or inept presentation. The Op. 25 songs are a reissue, and the text and translation leaflet is still below standard. One day the original poems will be correctly printed, translated and annotated by someone who really cares about such things and can be bothered to get them right.
© gramophone, Nov., 1977 (p. 879)