Mörike-Lieder (Fischer-Dieskau, Barenboim/ Luxon, Willison)*
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/ Daniel Barenboim; DGG
Benjamin Luxon/David Willison; Argo
100 years after Mörike's death his poems are still in constant circulation, on discs as we11 as desks. Hugo Wolf first read them in 1878, when he was 18. Thereafter he set one regularly every two years until 1888, when he composed not just the predictable fifth song but the amazing 53 Mörike-Lieder later published entire as his mature début.
That fine flowering is now pressed in two albums. Each sensibly omits six of the women's songs (nos.3, 7, 14, 41, 42, 45) while mysteriously including the seventh (Gesang Weylas). Each shuns Elfenlied, though Mörike's fairy world is surely unisex; Argo perversely cuts Der Knabe und das Immlein. DGG, conversely, adds the early Der König bei der Krönung. So they start their set two up. But then some vital points are missed, e.g. in the footfaltering rhythm of Heimweh, which sounds more like a quick step than the lagging (“langsam”) tread of reluctant departure. Elsewhere the ensemble is far from flawless. But singly the performers are in top form. Indeed, Fischer-Dieskau's stature has now become so towering that it almost bursts out of the song frame. His greatness can transform a vast auditorium into an intimate forum. But when it comes to records, the tables are turned; he can also convert drawing-room lyrics into Albert Hall dramatics, as in Jägerlied (second verse) or Zum neuen Jahr, which swings between pealing bells and unappealing decibels. His personae too have a touch of the artificial in their make-up. In Der Tambour for example he steps out of the drummer's role, by chortling about “Sauerkraut”; the keyboard touch of humour here is really all the nudging needed. Even a great understanding can sometimes seem just a little knowing.
Daniel Barenboim gives us the songs of innocence rather than experience. He too is a master, of course, but of a rather different school. His readings tend to sound over-literal. Thus Begegnung suggests not just a tempestuous affair but a gale warning, while Um Mitternacht is blurred to the point of obscurity (the time of midnight must be nearer 12/8 than 6/4). The older hands at accompaniment have the upper hand in such contexts. David Willison sees that these are not pictures but images, not onomatopoeia but metaphor; and his musical language accordingly speaks in the authentic Wolfian idiom. Benjamin Luxon is an aptly intuitive partner, responsive to piano and words alike. His usually exact and invariably eloquent German relives the poetry along expressive vocal lines, often very feelingly flighted and sustained. Once or twice he sounds so absorbed in the sense of the poetry as to lose sight of the note values or even the actual notes (as at the end of Abschied, where it should be the visiting critic, not the resident vocalist, who gets carried away). But in general the singing, like the playing, is lit by a fusion of intensity, integrity and insight; and not only singly but in sympathetic partnership.
For hand-in-glove collaboration then this box is a points winner, in my judgment, especially in the more lyrical songs or moments. The DGG set scores whenever the music really is overtly programmatic (e.g. the postlude to Der Gärtner, which is as pretty as its picture) or dramatic (in such demonic works as Der Feuerreiter, where each artist rightly performs like a man possessed). But, as observed above, two great stars can sometimes have the effect of an eclipsing binary. The British discs are of comparable magnitude, and hence better value. As a bonus they offer detailed notes as well as translations, while DGG has neither - unless one counts the unsingable (not to say unspeakable) Peters versions, which sound as if they, not Mörike, had been dead for 100 years. And would they e'er do, e'en then?
To offset that affront to a great poet, why not add the women's songs and so round off this new world class venture with one more Argo disc covering E. Mörike?
The Musical Times, Mar. 1975 (p. 248) © the estate of eric sams