Lieder (+ Mahler: Lieder) (Norman, Gage)

Schubert: Schwestergruss; Der Zwerg; 3 Ellen­ Gesänge (Raste, Krieger; Jäger, ruhe von der Jagd; Ave Maria) [+Mahler: Das irdische Leben; Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; Urlicht; Liebst du um Schönheit; Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen] Jessye Norman/Irwin Gage; Philips



The first two songs might have been chosen to exemplify how vast Schubert's range is, and how rarely explored. Schwestergruss is formal and stylized like the poet's fable of Thanatos; Der Zwerg is original and disturbing like the poet's myth of Oedipus. Each is fraught with Freud, from the death-wish via mother-fixation back to infantile regression. That jaded jargon always rings truer as art than as science, and Schubert makes it not merely credible but poignant. In particular the tale of the hurt dwarf stands out like a sore Tom Thumb.

    So programme and performance make a finely auspicious start in both voice and piano. But then the three Ellen-Gesänge and the Mahler songs invite unhelpful comparisons. One has only to hear the Baker-Moore account of Raste, Kriegerfor example to judge how much more meticulously their tempo takes the measure of Schubert's “mässig”. On this record, it is nearer Andante than Moderato. The result is that Ellen sounds rather wearier than her warrior, and the effect is insufficiently disarming.

    The other songs surely need scoring before they can really make their mark. For Mahler, “wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” means in the orchestra, uplifted and unmuted. The words clamour for a brazenly literal sound of lamentation, like the Last Post; and this is just missed in the piano version, despite Irwin Gage's generally precise timing and alert responsiveness. Of course there is further lavish compensation. Jessye Norman's voice is lustrous, her interpretative talent impressive, her commitment wholehearted. She is no doubt already a first-rate recitalist; she may well be a potentially great lieder singer. This début is certainly admirable. But invigorating though the baptism may be, it is not yet quite the total immersion that the lied demands. lf one's “ich” sometimes sounds suspiciously “ish”-ish, is it wise to select a song with a repeated refrain beginning “O nicht mich”? In Der Zwerg, shouldn't the last word be “länden”, to rhyme with “Händen”? In Raste, Krieger, isn't the voice's top note in bar 34 F sharp, not E? (cf bars 51 and 129). And so on. When such queries no longer arise, Jessye Norman will unquestionably be an incomparable artist.          


The Musical Times, Jan. 1974 (p. 46) © the estate of eric sams