Richard Strauss: The Complete Songs Vol. 3

Andrew Kennedy; Roger Vignoles (Hyperion CDA 67602)

31st March 2008 4 stars

Strauss Volume 3The third instalment in Hyperion's edition of Lieder by Richard Strauss is the first to employ a male singer and, in tenor Andrew Kennedy, Roger Vignoles has picked one of Britain's finest young singers. Kennedy, though, has a very hard act to follow after the first two volumes featured two world-renowned Straussians in Christine Brewer and Anne Schwanewilms. And although this disc is not quite in the same exalted league, this is still a fine achievement and an essential addition to any Straussian's or song-lover's collection. Throughout this disc, as with the previous ones, I was reminded simply of how abundant Strauss's melodic gift was; if in this personal and subjective genre he occasionally let himself get carried away, there's so much fine music that it's difficult not to get swept along.

The first thing I noticed with this new addition to the series, though, was slightly more reverberant and less focussed engineering. This means that the introduction to 'Nichts!' that opens the disc sounds ever so slightly fuzzy and Kennedy's distinctive timbre – tinged with a slightly tangy quality and occasionally a little veiled – is exaggerated. However, once the ear has adjusted, there is a great deal to enjoy. As has been the case throughout the series, the disc is a mixture of complete sets by opus number – as here with the six Schack settings that make up Op.16 and the Five Songs of Op.32 – and songs linked by atmosphere or content and selected for the particular singer or voice type – such as 'Heimliche Aufforderung' from Op.27, which Vignoles argues convincingly is ideally suited to a tenor.

After three Dahn settings from Op.10 ('Nichts', 'Die Zeitlose' and 'Die Verschwiegenen') we have the Op.16 set and it's fascinating to hear these songs in their context. The famous 'Ständchen' receives an unsentimental performance and benefits immensely from being heard with its bed-fellows: 'Barkarole' with its subtle word-painting is every bit as haunting, 'Seitdem dein Aug' in meines schaute' is an ardent stream of melody, while 'Das Geheimnis' is a tender, minor masterpiece performed with melting beauty here (listen especially to the final two lines and Vignoles' brief epilogue). The set is completed by 'Aus den Liedern der Trauer' and 'Nur Mut!' and Kennedy is as intelligent and sensitive a guide through these as the others.

One could legitimately argue that this is not repertoire ideal for his voice type and a quick comparison with Jonas Kaufmann's performance of, say, 'Heimliche Aufforderung' on his recent award-winning disc of Strauss made me miss a similar sort of vocal power here. Similarly, while in 'Liebeshymnus' it's refreshing to have the score's dynamic markings followed so closely, Kennedy at times sounds underpowered in the difficult vocal line; Simon Keenlyside on his EMI recital from 1995, admittedly transposed down a tone, is far more ardent and open-throated. However, if Kennedy's voice is maybe not the ideal instrument for some of these songs, this makes for interpretations that are never allowed simply to resort to vocal grand-standing. Interpretatively, each song is carefully thought out and the attention to detail in the pointing of the texts is backed up by Vignoles' ever-alert contributions on the piano.

The disc continues with three more Schack settings from Op.19, including the beautiful 'Schön sind, doch kalt die Himmelssterne' and two more Dahn settings from Op.21 (the humorous 'Ach weh mir unglückhaftem Mann' and the delicate 'Die Frauen sind oft fromm und still'). These are followed, after 'Heimliche Aufforderung', by another complete set: the Five Songs Op.32, like the more famous Op.27 songs, dedicated to Pauline. Here, devotion and passion intermingle in the first four songs, including the slow build-up in 'Sehnsucht' from a bleak opening to warm melody and the ardent 'Liebeshymnus' and 'O süßer Mai!'. The set closes with 'Himmelsboten', which uses a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Despite some clever descriptive writing in the piano part both here and in another Wunderhorn setting, 'Für funfzehn Pfennige' from Op.36, which is programmed next, it's interesting that Strauss's settings have little of the easy charm or ironic humour Mahler brought to poems from the anthology.

Indeed, Strauss seems far more at home in the final song of Op.36, 'Anbetung', a grand, highly chromatic Rückert setting; and 'Winterweihe' and 'Winterliebe', two Henckell settings from op.48, even if in the second he does go slightly over the top. 'Freundliche Vision', though, is a gem to finish on and a song that shows Kennedy at his best: it is performed with restraint, intelligence and carefully controlled emotion.

As the third volume of a series that is set to be every bit as essential and definitive as the Schubert and Schumann editions on Hyperion, this disc is self-recommending. For those in search of vocal fireworks from a tenor in this repertoire, it might be necessary to look elsewhere. However, Kennedy negotiates Strauss's sometimes extremely taxing writing with aplomb and, with Vignoles a wise and moderating influence on the piano, these are still fine performances of some wonderful music.

By Hugo Shirley