Thomas Quasthoff & Justus Zeyen

Liederkreis, Op.24
Die schöne Magelone, Op.33

Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone) & Justus Zeyen (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 25 May, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This programme was certainly interesting, mixing the quixotic genius of Schumann with the rather more solid virtues of Brahms. “Liederkreis” (Opus 24) is – as always with this composer – full of mellifluous neurosis. For all of his subtlety, Thomas Quasthoff didn’t quite capture the myriad changes of mood. He does have an enormous range of tone colours at his disposal, which only Fischer-Dieskau, amongst male singers, could provide. In the second stanza of ‘Es treibt mich hin’ every word was vividly painted and the attack on the last word of the song – ‘Hast’ – was exceptional. At the start of ‘Schöne Wiege’, there was real urgency and the breath control in ‘Berg’ und Burgen’ was faultless. In the final song the control of micro-dynamics was brilliant. Still, Schumann’s vocal line is better suited to a high baritone or tenor (for which it was written) and the performance remained earthbound. Given the singer’s superb projection, Justus Zeyen was able to utilise a wide dynamic range, and he made the most of poetic opportunities. There was also a true sense of communication between the artists, a quality that always enhances any Lieder recital.

Quasthoff does seem to like Brahms’s songs; his recorded version of “Four Serious Songs” (DG) is the best I have heard. He introduced “Die schöne Magelone” with a brief speech that combined a dig at singers who appear at Wembley Arena and the like and the possibility of Johnny Depp appearing as the Knight. The cycle recounts the hackneyed and somewhat ridiculous story of a young Knight who meets his love, somehow gets lost in a forest, is abducted by Moors, sold to a Sultan (for what use is never really explained) and escapes to be reunited with his love, who has waited any number of years for him, in a forest hut.

There are 15 songs and in the original version – which thankfully we were spared – a narrator filled in the missing bits of the epic. The music is far from inspired, being melodically sparse and somewhat repetitious, both technically and emotionally. As in the Schumann, Quasthoff lavished a whole range of tone colours and dynamic shading, the bass notes towards the end of ‘Sin des Schmerzen’ were alarmingly open and threatening, the rhythmic bounce in the fifth song was infectious, the rocking pianissimos in ‘Ruhe, Süßliebchen’ hypnotic and Zeyen was his equal in every way. And yet, as in the Schumann, there were problems. The singer’s attention to detail became disruptive, with the insistence on making every note an individually coloured component destroying the line. More legato would have been welcome.

Despite this serious reservation, the recital will remain in the memory. Quasthoff has that very rare combination: a great voice and a powerful intellect. Everything he does demands to be heard.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 7 June at 7 p.m.
  • Wigmore Hall

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