Fritz Wunderlich Schumann Dichterliebe Schubert BeethovenSchumann: Dichterliebe

Beethoven, Schubert – Lieder

Fritz Wunderlich, tenor

Hubert Giesen, piano

Deutsche Grammophon, 1966 (1997)

Few voices have attained such peaks of excellence in the German repertoire as that of tenor Fritz Wunderlich as this recording, released in the year of his untimely death (1966), continually reveals song after song. The only negative side of this album, collecting Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe together with several other compositions by Beethoven and Schubert, is that the piano accompaniment cannot match the singer but, from my personal point of view, this is a flaw that can be overcome in consideration of the splendour of Wunderlich’s voice.

Apart from Dichterliebe (literally, “a poet’s love”), the song cycle composed by Schumann in 1840 on sixteen texts from the Lyrisches Intermezzo of Heinrich Heine, the programme features four songs composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (Zärtliche Liebe, Adelaïde, Resignation and Der Kuss) and nine by Franz Schubert (An Sylvia, Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, Liebhaber in allen Gestalten, Der Einsame, Im Abendrot, one of the Schwanengesang, An die Laute, Der Musensohn and An die Musik).

As stated before, Fritz Wunderlich is a master of this repertoire. His smooth and pure voice with its unmistakable velvet realizes magical and powerful suggestions. There is nothing tragic or dramatic in his singing as he performs the songs and the Dichterliebe in particular giving prominence to unaffectedness. This is what is usually called a “lyrical interpretation”, moreover carried out with exquisite simplicity, so that it seems that Wunderlich does not do any particular effort in the performance of the songs.

This is only half true and can be referred to the songs of the second part of the album but not to Dichterliebe. If variety is valuable in the former, it is interesting to notice in the latter how Wunderlich is able to make the listener understand that a story is developing in the sixteen songs. The tenor performs each of them preserving its individual unity, but in the meantime he leaves room to connect them with each other, allowing to follow the story of the poet’s love from its romantic beginning to the increasing unhappiness of the middle songs to the final detachment when he puts his sorrow into a huge coffin. Wunderlich’s tone changes little by little, adapting itself to the different subject of each song, but in the end the tenor’s unifying intention becomes clear and it is a pleasure to notice that, apart from the intrinsic qualities of his voice, there is something subtler to discover here.

Dichterliebe would be enough to praise Wunderlich highly, but the next songs too offers many stirring moments, as Beethoven’s Adelaïde with its sentimental but not mawkish tune, or the lively Der Musensohn, which constitutes an exception to the overall character of the album.

In this part, moreover, the piano accompaniment is definitely better than in the Dichterliebe. Pianist Hubert Giesen is not at the same level of the tenor and, despite he is not a bad player, he lacks inspiration in Dichterliebe and recovers it only partially in the next works. Things would have been even worse if the instrument did not have a fine silvery sound, very well captured by the recording, but, of course, this does not fully compensate for the absence of a good interpreter.

Apart from the weakness – not negligible but tolerable – of the piano performance, this recording of Dichterliebe and of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s songs is still valid from the vocal point of view and is another monument in memory of Fritz Wunderlich, one of the most extraordinary tenors of the 20th century who unfortunately passed away before time.