Duets (Baker, Fischer-Dieskau, Moore)*

Schubert: Duets. Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer­-Dieskau/Gerald Moore DGG



The Schubert lied is all variety. Even its earliest stage took on many new turns. One regular feature was the tragedy duo. Hermann and Thusnelda, Hector and Andromache, Antigone and Oedipus, Selma and Selmar, Shilrik and Vilvela (in Cronnan) all make appearances here. The poems are a musty mixture of passion, fustian and Ossian, whose translators and imitators cover the whole pseudo­epic scene, Klopstock and Harold. The music's correspondingly diffuse cantata style deliberately leaves space and scope for interpretation. On the page it looks (and can easily sound) hollow. Gerald Moore suffuses it with life and colour. He is not only a graphic artist but a scenic designer. His playing of Cronnan for example recreates the vivid impact that the text must have made on Schubert's verbo-musical mind. Over the mossy murmur of mountain streams drifts the shining wraith of Vilvela, silvering the dark air; the grisly verse reappears as haunting music. Such support gives the singers extra stature; and each is in great form.

    Janet Baker makes a finely Didonesque tragedy queen, with a sense of drama so poignant that even the lyric sometimes suffers. Thus the ghost of Vilvela gets her lover's name wrong twice in four bars. Still, no one expects the recently-departed to have total recall; and perhaps in this antique pastiche any old name (literally) will do. Fischer-Dieskau also excels at the expression suited to all these songs, namely a gloomily reproachful dignity, the sonorous equivalent of a St Bernard.

    The second side is even better, though I am not wholly convinced by the mixed-voice and piano realization of the figured-bass duet vocalises which Schubert wrote for his singing pupils, the Esterhàzy countesses (n619). The resulting separation of the melodic lines tends to obscure the harmonic point ofthe exercise. And listeners are earnestly recommended not to allow the thought of a duet for two cats to stray across their minds.

     But the soulfully alternating strains in Licht der Liebe and Nur wer die Sehnsucht kenntsound deeply human and serious. So does the great final climax of the cathedral scene from Faust, marred only by the balance and resonance of keyboard and choir which suggest not so much a great cathedral as a small drill hall. But Fischer-Dieskau is darkly magnificent as the evil spirit, and Janet Baker movingly vulnerable as Gretchen, while Gerald Moore produces and directs a continuous play of Schubertian significance - here for example the allusion to the quickening of Gretchen's unborn child in terms of (unintentionally ominous) sextuplets.

    To hear unfamiliar Schubert acted and presented in all these ways affords new insights into Shakespearean depths. The works themselves have some popular appeal as well as great scholarly interest; and in these performances with these principals they should command a wide audience.


The Musical Times, Aug. 1973 (p. 804) © the estate of eric sams