5 de Diapason
Along with the identity of Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" and the specifics of Franz Schubert's sexual proclivities, the possible love triangle between Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms has been one of the most chewed-over bits of tabloid musicology. Now, tenor Werner Güra and pianist Christoph Berner have developed a concert program in which readings from the three composers' correspondence are woven together with selected songs by each of them, framing the music and the letters as exegeses of the other, shedding light on the interplay between their interconnected personal lives and compositions. This recording is an attempt to adapt that semi-dramatic format to CD. In doing so, the two have wisely opted to print the excerpted letters in the booklet rather than present them as spoken readings, meaning that listeners who are interested in the letters can digest them at their own pace, while those who would rather listen to the songs unmolested are free to do so.
And it is quite a listening experience. Güra and Berner reveal themselves to be exceptional interpreters of these songs -- all of them, but especially those of Clara Schumann, which have rarely been so fully realized as they are here. Güra's compact tenor is perfectly cast in this intimate world, substituting focus and subtle coloration for amplitude. He sings with exquisitely clear diction without sacrificing an ounce of lyricism, and has an appealing, youthful top range that lends these poems a welcome sincerity. Berner plays a historical grand piano from the 1870s as if he were born to it: unlike many historical pianos, which serve only to remind of why we're glad to have the modern instrument, it sounds warm, clear, and sweet in tone. The slightly smaller sound of the instrument allows Berner to play with a wider, more free-flowing range of dynamics and articulation without ever threatening to over-balance Güra. Together, the two create a rhythmic world that is in constant flux -- adding dollops of rubato wherever they see fit, while never stretching the rhythmic fabric so far that it seems out of place -- but always remarkably unified. It is collaborative music making at its best. The simplicity of "Da unten im Tale" from Brahms' Deutsche Volkslieder speaks for itself; the concluding "Mit Myrten und Rosen" from Robert's Liekerkries, Op. 24, melts away with perfect elusiveness; and "Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden," from which the album takes its title, oscillates between resignation and defiance with chameleon deftness.