Songs by Great Conductors: Hans von Bülow, Bruno Walter & Clemens Krauss

Michael Volle, Petra Lang; Adrian Baianu (Oehms OC808)

28 April 2008 4 stars

Songs by Great ConductorsThe three 'great conductors' whose songs feature on this disc are so closely associated with three great composers that it's almost impossible not to approach the works without expecting them to sound like, respectively, Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strauss.

In fact, although von Bülow, who is represented by eight songs (five that constitute his Op.5 and three that make up his Op.30), was a Wagnerian par excellence, it's worth remembering that Wagner composed very few Lieder and that von Bülow was linked with almost every great German composer of his era. In the event, I found his songs the least individual and interesting on the disc. Although they are all perfectly respectable and treated to excellent performances by Michael Volle and Petra Lang, they are hampered by a certain stylistic anonymity, doubtless caused by their composer's inability to find a voice characteristic enough to stop the influence of his illustrious contemporaries encroaching. For example, in the opening Goethe setting, 'Freisinn', he dutifully evokes the horse-riding described in the poem but fails to marry it to any more interesting musical ideas; in 'Wunsch', there's a hint of a proper lyrical climax half way through but it never quite hits the spot emotionally. The attempt at Schubertian naivety in 'Volkslied' similarly fails to convince. In the other songs, the word-setting is often less than instinctive and although he uses his pianistic mastery to whip up some nicely storm-tossed seas in 'Wenn an des Weltmeers Klippen', the result is enjoyable but never really totally engaging. So, although it's interesting to hear these songs, they have an undoubted curiosity value rather than anything more profound to recommend them.

It's a very different matter with the songs by Bruno Walter – three settings of Eichendorff and three Heine settings from his Op.12 – and Clemens Krauss – his Acht Gesänge nach Gedichten von Rainer Maria Rilke. Although it's quite easy to detect a Mahlerian influence in the Walter songs, they also have a certain musical language that is all there own. The Eichendorff songs begin with 'Musikantengruß', probably the weakest and the most overtly Mahlerian, unmistakably influenced by that composer's Des Knaben Wunderhorn settings. Both 'Der Junge Ehemann' and 'Der Soldat', though, are more individual. The latter is particularly enjoyable: the song itself quirky and witty while Volle negotiates the difficult vocal line with ease. The three Heine settings – three 'Tragedies' – start off with an passionate entreaty to elope and the second, which has more echoes of Wolf than Mahler, is a little gem. Here Walter finds the kind of folky insouciance that eluded von Bülow and a quietly moving musical language which he successfully carries on into the third of the set as well.

Clemens Krauss's Rilke settings were first published in 1920 and are very much of their time. The booklet points to refrerences in the songs to Berg's Seven Early Songs and they show a much greater affinity with the members of the Second Viennese School, before their turn to atonality, than with Richard Strauss, with whom Krauss would become more closely associated, later collaborating on Capriccio. The musical language is delicate, reflecting the nature of Rilke's verses which evoke a series of acutely observed sensual experiences rather than the kind of full-blown emotions that Strauss would be drawn to in much of the poetry he chose to set. As such, these are beautifully crafted songs, where the singer takes a more detached, objective role. Much of the piano writing, too, is exquisite, carefully matched to the poetry but never resorting to literal sound-painting and throughout, the delicious, highly perfumed chromaticism shows the hand of a very fine composer.

It's difficult to tell whether any of these songs will get incorporated into the repertoire but, if nothing else, this disc gives a demonstration of quite how broad these musician's abilities were. And throughout, the performances are exemplary. Adrian Baianu is authoritative and imaginative at the piano and if Lang's tone can sometimes be a little strident, both she and Volle give highly committed performances.

By Hugo Shirley