Sunday, February 2, 2020

"Lieder Ohnegleichen" (Songs without Equal) - a recent recording of Schubert Lieder by Austrian tenor Daniel Johannsen and Christoph Hammer (Germany) on fortepiano

One of the most profound and fascinating recordings of Schubert Lieder to appear of late is
“Lieder Ohnegleichen” (Songs without Equal) performed by tenor Daniel Johannsen (Austria) and historic keyboard artist Christoph Hammer (Germany). In keeping with the sound world and balance with which the composer and his contemporaries would have been familiar, Hammer chose to play (“accompany” would be the wrong word here) a fortepiano from c.1827 by Viennese piano builder Conrad Graf. The instrument, boasting five pedals, is part of the Christa and Reinhold J. Buhl Collection.


Franz Schubert was, of course, the originator of the “Liederabend” (evening song recital), the extraordinary musical environment that featured nothing but a singer and pianist, bringing about a thrillingly direct form of communication between artists and listeners.  Of the composer’s some 600 Lieder, Johannsen and Hammer leave aside Die Schöne Müllerin”, “Winterreise” and many frequently-performed Lieder to explore a number of other jewels of the Schubert vocal canon. Several of the Lieder appearing on the disc display the composer’s preoccupation with the nature-centric poetry of his day, yielding rich musical landscapes and depictions of the human experience in nature, setting before the listener Romantic attitudes and ethics.


The artists open with “Das Lied im Grünen” (Song in the Country: words: J.A.F.Reil), abundant in the joy of youth and springtime, with Johannsen effusively highlighting the text’s sumptuousness  against the busy, sparkling and subtly-flexed piano part, coloured with just a touch of melancholy. Alongside the subject of the seasons, the life of the fisherman and reminiscences of love, poetry inspired by the mystery of the night provides the settings to many of the recording’s songs - the pansophical, stable moon, the benevolent stars, the dark, fateful brooding in “Bertha’s Nocturnal Song” (words: Franz Grillparzer) or the otherworldly image of the fisherman and his sweetheart in Karl Leitner’s “Des Fischers Liebesglück” (The Fisherman’s Luck in Love) as they “drift on blissfully, in the midst of darkness, high above the twinkling stars…” Differing from the bulk of the disc’s works is “Glaube, Hoffnung und Liebe” (Love, Hope and Love; words: Christoph Kuffner) offering a glimpse into German moral teachings of the time. And, apart from the comforting image of a window shining or hopefully shining light into the night, suggesting the possible presence of a lover, Hammer and Johannsen mostly present Schubert Lieder in which the voice is that of a person alone with his thoughts in the wondrous world of nature.  But it is the artists’ deep inquiry into the smallest, most subtle details and allusions of the verbal- and musical texts of each song, the highlighting of a single word, the gentle flexing of a phrase, a tiny but strategic hesitation, a comment offered by the piano and predominantly the Romantic gamut of ever-shifting human emotions that make listening to this disc such a rare and involving experience. Johannsen and Hammer present each Lied as a small but complete theatrical piece, revealing its various levels and the sophistication of Schubert’s writing throughout. In “Herbst” (Autumn; words: Ludwig Rellstab), for example, the piano’s right hand evokes the blustery, unsettled weather associated with Autumn, with the left hand weaving mellifluous melodic phrases in and out of the texture, as Johannsen endorses the song’s disquieting message put to music by the composer in 1828, the last year of his own life: “Winds blow cold over the hillside! So do the roses of life die.”


Daniel Johannsen’s voice is fresh, rich in colours and pleasing in all registers, his free, poignant and affecting singing reflecting every turn of emotion. Christoph Hammer’s playing is rich in temperament and ideas, easeful, alive and responsive, bringing into play the fortepiano’s warmth and distinctive palette of colours. Hammer and Johannsen’s finely-consolidated Schubert performance is clearly the result of much discussion and collaboration. “Lieder Ohnegleichen” was recorded in April 2018 in Grafrath, Germany for the SPEKTRAL label. The sound quality is true and vivid. The disc offers program notes that are interesting and informative.


Christoph Hammer, Daniel Johannsen (

No comments: