Lieder: So easy to love

MUSIC

The `holy art' lifts listeners up on high

MusicColumn

November 11, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's a two-syllable German word that sends some music lovers toward ecstasy - and others toward exits. The word is lieder, defined, broadly speaking, as "songs" - specifically, German poetry set to music for solo voice and piano. But lieder means so much more than that.

The imagination, sensitivity, insight and emotional breadth that characterize the lieder of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss can transport the willing listener on a first-class flight to where the air is rare. We're talking what the Germans call Heilige Kunst - holy art.

An opportunity to savor this art is coming up on Sunday, when the Shriver Hall Concert Series presents gifted young German baritone Stephan Genz in an all-lieder recital, accompanied by noted British pianist Roger Vignoles. For those in need of an introduction to this repertoire, or for the already-converted in need of a fresh fix, this concert promises much.

The program includes Schumann's Dichterliebe, based on poems by Heinrich Heine, and a substantial sampling of the songs Wolf composed to poetry by Eduard Morike (collectively known as the Morike-Lieder). Coincidentally, both composers produced these masterworks during a whirlwind of creative energy over a few, winter-into-spring months - Schumann in 1840, Wolf in 1888. (Also coincidentally, both composers subsequently went insane and died just about 15 years after writing those particular songs. Don't worry - no one has been known to go insane listening to them.)

Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love) ranks among the greatest examples of a song cycle - a group of songs that form a cohesive musical and literary structure. The 16 songs in this cycle reflect on lost love, a favorite theme of 19th-century poetry.

Heine's emotional verses, which reflect the very essence of Romanticism, become extraordinarily vivid through Schumann's melodic lines and, just as significantly, the piano accompaniment. The keyboard is not just a mirror of the poet's feelings, but a window into the things not expressed in words. In the course of Dichterliebe, we proceed from warm recollections of a budding love affair to wrenching recriminations to sober resignation, with side trips to cynicism and self-pity.

Wolf's Morike-Lieder are not connected by narrative or mood. They are, rather, individual gems, linked by the quality of Morike's poetry and the composer's subtle means of transforming them into song. They range in character from the whirling, eerie ballad Der Feuerreiter to the poignant Lebe wohl, with its subtly Wagnerian harmonies. There's humor, too, including a look at a wedding between two not-in-love-birds (Bei einer Trauung) and a succinct kick-in-the-pants to critics of all kinds (Abschied).

Lieder has always attracted, and has been wonderfully interpreted by, many non-German artists. But there is an extra degree of idiomatic authority from native German-speakers.

"Lieder is so linked to our culture," says Genz by phone from Germany. "People used to learn all the poems [used in lieder] in school. As a boy, I loved poetry. And ever since I wanted to become a singer, it pretty much meant that I wanted to sing lieder. At 16 or 17, I knew [Schubert's song cycle] Winterreise by heart. It was my dream to sing this repertoire. Lieder was the real force behind what I wanted to do."

For Genz, one of the most rewarding experiences is to perform lieder for an audience as steeped in the poetry and music as he is - "When you can feel they know every word and are with you at every moment."

Surprisingly, such an audience has become harder to find in his own country. "Now we have less and less people knowing the poetry; they don't read that stuff in school anymore," the baritone says. "I rarely sing recitals in Germany; concert organizers aren't as interested. It is better in Spain and England, even France."

In this country, vocal recitals - all-lieder, or the more traditional mixture of art songs from various countries - have become increasingly tough sells, except in a few major cultural bastions. Curiously, while opera has enjoyed a boom in the past few decades, that has not translated into a strong interest in all the other repertoire that classically trained voices can sing.

If concert presenters do entice audiences inside for a vocal recital, they need to provide texts and translations of the program, and enough light for them to be read as the performance proceeds. All audiences have to do is take the time to read them, ideally while following along with the singer. Not with heads buried in the pages, though. "The attention has to be drawn to the colors of the voice, the little things happening in your face, or your gestures," says Genz. "I don't care if people don't understand every word. Lieder is so much more about atmosphere, the mix of piano and voice. The sound is so important."

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