Epic – Lieder & Balladen
Schubert: Der Zwerg; Loewe: Edward; R Schumann: Belsatzar
Stéphane Degout (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano), Felicity Palmer, Marielou Jacquard (mezzo-soprano)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902367 63:18 mins
Although titled ‘Lieder & Balladen’, this recital consists mainly of the latter, a series of well-known but nonetheless gripping tales from German Romanticism, set by the great song-writing masters of the 19th century. We encounter terrifying dwarves, murderous sons, evil kings, dying soldiers, stoical gypsies and pyromaniacs, before ending with Liszt’s magnificent, expansive settings of three sonnets by Petrarch.
Stéphane Degout’s superb voice sounds wonderfully virile throughout his impressive range. In Loewe’s setting of the gruesome ballad of ‘Edward’, Degout growls and shouts to tremendous effect. In the more testosterone-driven songs, he sounds suitably heroic. I occasionally longed for a more vulnerable, hollowed-out sound, for example, to evoke the sinister dwarf in Schubert’s Der Zwerg.
Felicity Palmer has a magnificent cameo as Edward’s ghastly mother in Brahms’s setting of the eponymous ballad. Marielou Jacquard, in Brahms’s Die Nonne und der Ritter, has a sweet sound but could tell her part of this mysterious tale more compellingly. The three Petrarch sonnet settings of Liszt seem, initially, to be outsiders in this gruesome parade. And Degout’s sound is occasionally rather extrovert for these tender declarations of love.
Simon Lepper is supremely unhurried throughout, spinning out the suspense and bringing welcome gravitas to these macabre stories. Many of the songs are set in subterranean reaches of the piano, but Lepper’s textures remain clear throughout. His playing is as rhetorically alive and responsive as Degout’s singing. The balance between piano and voice, even in such dense-textured songs as Wolf’s ‘Der Feuerreiter’, is outstanding.