“Lieder? I can’t exactly see myself singing about love to a babbling brook!” one of the opera world’s most distinguished sopranos sniffed the other day when I asked if she ventured into this rarefied corner of classical song literature. Living, as we do, in an age when tender hearts and easily shed tears are objects of ridicule, it might seem impossible for any singer to sound convincing in the 19th-century Romantic repertoire of German art songs. And yet, we are in something of a new golden age of the recital: Young singers all over the place are standing up and singing the effusions of Schubert, Schumann, Mahler and Strauss without the slightest hint of apology.
In New York, the song season has become late winter, and over the past month, the recital stages have been dominated by a sort of United Nations of some of the finest male singers in the world-a Russian, an Austrian, an Englishman and a German-whose different approaches to lieder provide an opportunity for assessing the current state of the art of song.
More than with any other young singer today, the personality and prowess of the Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky are so commanding that he seems to take complete possession of whatever he sings. Mr. Hvorostovsky devoted the first half of his program on Feb. 24 in Carnegie Hall to Italian-language songs and arias from the Baroque and Classical periods. He revealed a new facility for fine-spun, Italianate legato that did nothing to lessen the visceral impact of his dark, almost menacing, Russianness. If it was impossible to imagine this silver-maned Lochinvar ever finding himself in the circumstances of lovesick Xerxes, his rendering of Handel’s famous “Largo” (“Ombra mai fù”) was a marvel of vocal disguise. (Many of these songs can be heard on Mr. Hvorostovsky’s new album, Arie Antiche , accompanied by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips 289 456 543-2.)
After the intermission, Mr. Hvorostovsky delivered a blistering performance of “Petersburg-a Vocal Poem” by the contemporary Russian composer Georgi Sviridov. A setting of nine poems by Alexander Blok, written between 1901 and 1914, this is a remarkable fusion of the deceptively simple, cellular style of vocal writing that is so peculiarly Russian with those presentiments of loss that the Russians seem to savor as much as caviar. Mr. Hvorostovsky’s swagger with his mother tongue was almost lubricious, and his magnificent voice took on the cavernous dimensions of a man howling in St. Petersburg’s doomed, empty streets, on the coldest night in memory.
For years, the accepted style of the lieder singer has been to let the voice alone carry the burden of expression. True to the solipsistic nature of most of the repertoire, the best singers have often seemed oblivious to the audience. (A few years ago, I heard Brigitte Fassbaender sing a program of Hugo Wolf entirely to the floor.) But the old decorums are dying-witness recitals by three of the most admired younger lieder specialists in Europe.
The first was given by the Austrian Wolfgang Holzmair, expertly accompanied by Russell Rejan, on March 10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. Mr. Holzmair is out of Central Casting-lithe build and darkly handsome looks, a high, soft-grained baritone that caresses the musical line and floats as though carried by the wind in some craggy Alpine setting.
In Mr. Holzmair’s previous New York appearances, he has always seemed to me the least forced of recitalists, but on this occasion-a program of Schumann, Ravel and Debussy-he threw his arms and hands into the presentation with a vigor that was almost alarming. But Mr. Holzmair is such a sincere artist that his body language came to seem less a matter of showmanship than a desire to connect not just with his voice but with his whole being. If Mr. Holzmair’s traversal of Schumann’s great outpouring of love for his beloved wife, Clara, the Liederkreis cycle, sometimes seemed too lost in a reverie, his French songs-particularly his marvelous rendering of Ravel’s whimsical bestiary Histoires Naturelles set to poems by Jules Renard-had the vividness of a man fully awake and in the best conversational form. Coming down from the thin air of those dreamy German landscapes seems good for Mr. Holzmair.
“Theatrical” doesn’t do justice to the young English tenor Ian Bostridge, whose all-Schumann program at the Frick Collection, on March 15 was the most arresting lieder recital I’ve heard in years. Where Mr. Holzmair was all hands, Mr. Bostridge was all eyes. A bit red around the rims, as though he’d been weeping over his lost love all afternoon, they took in the small room with an intensity that made me feel guilty to glance down at the song texts in my lap. And yet the tall, willowy Mr. Bostridge-a figure out of Brideshead Revisited , who has a doctorate in history and philosophy from Oxford University and who has published a monograph on witchcraft in the 17th and 18th centuries-generates the illusion of suffering with viselike force. Singing an ambitious program, comprising both the Liederkreis and Dichterliebe cycles, among other songs set to the echt -Romantic verses of Heinrich Heine, he employed his sweet tenor with startling flexibility and a feral attention to the words. To hear him sing the most bitterly ironic utterance in the entire literature-” Ich golle nicht ” (I bear no grudge)-was like watching a man about to jump from the Trump Tower and not being able to take your eyes off him for a second.
For me, the most satisfying of these recitals was that of the young German baritone Matthias Goerne, which took place on March 22 at Alice Tully Hall. Mr. Goerne, whose growing discography of Romantic literature is assuming the canonical status of his mentor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, has it all: a rich, firm baritone, capable of quicksilver shadings from ethereal to gruff to profoundly grave. (His newest all-Schumann recording, of the Dichterliebe and Liederkreis , may be the definitive readings of these masterworks in the CD era; London 289 458 265-2.) Mr. Goerne, too, is no stone statue; rising on tiptoe for the high notes, letting his eyes “speak” along with his voice, arcing his barrel-like torso forward, he reminded me of a somewhat awkward, highly appealing penguin on the verge of flight.
Mr. Goerne’s recital was inestimably enhanced by his accompanist, Andreas Haefliger, whose father, the tenor Ernst Haefliger, was for so many years a paragon of lieder artistry. This magnificent young singer-his next New York appearance will be at the Metropolitan Opera, debuting as Papageno in The Magic Flute starting in November-clearly has the soaringly honest spirit of the lied in his very fiber. To hear him bring Schumann to such full, aching life was to be reminded of something that the great Mr. Fischer-Dieskau wrote about singing Schubert: “If Schubert’s melodies could be called his breath, then his rhythms are surely his heartbeats.” This was Romantic breathing on the highest level.