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COMPOSERS: SchumannBrahms
WORKS: Lieder
PERFORMER: Brigitte Fassbaender, Erik Werba
As a Lieder singer, Brigitte Fassbaender was a law unto herself. Her bold, bronze timbre, with its dash of astringency, was not conventionally beautiful. But beauty was never her prime concern. Where others warmed and consoled, Fassbaender scorched and singed; and her Frauenliebe und -leben from the 1977 Salzburg Festival has a no-holds-barred intensity.


No other singer suggests such pain within the cycle’s dominant moods of dreamy rapture and happy enthusiasm, as if its ending were implicit at the outset. The first song is usually sung as the private meditation of a shy ingénue. Fassbaender imbues it with a mingled anxiety and erotic longing. ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’, far from being innig, as Schumann indicates, rises to an almost hysterical ecstasy. ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’, usually a point of rapt stillness, has a fervour tinged with disquiet, while in the final song the widow’s grief embraces both anger and terror at the prospect of solitude. Erik Werba, rather thinly recorded, matches Fassbaender in passion if not always accuracy. Elsewhere Fassbaender’s ardour and directness make an eloquent case for the much maligned Maria Stuart songs. Not everyone will like the desperate urgency she brings to ‘Aufträge’ (girlish charm is not within her armoury) or ‘Mit Myrthen und Rosen’. But you’ll rarely hear ‘Das verlassene Mägdelein’ sung with such raw emotional truth, or such a fierce, sardonic ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’ from Dichterliebe.


For a more inward, tender view of Frauenliebe und -leben – doubtless closer to what Schumann envisaged – I’d recommend the beautifully sung versions by Bernarda Fink (Harmonia Mundi) and Juliane Banse (Hyperion). Fassbaender’s is with little doubt the most uncomfortable Frauenliebe in the catalogue. But for the duration of her performance she persuades you that hers is the only possible way. Richard Wigmore