Singers usually take a longer breath between Schubert's two great song cycles, "Die Schöne Müllerin" and "Winterreise", than baritone Thomas Quasthoff did this year. Last week saw the simultaneous releases of his live performance of "Winterreise", with pianist Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin Philharmonie on March 22, captured on a spellbinding DVD (DG), and a studio CD of the former (DG) with his usual accompanist, Justus Zeyen. But different as these performances are, and they are as different as can be, they both rank among the most deeply considered of a spate of recordings of the cycles to have appeared of late . . .
. . . musically masterful and honest, and consistently holds your attention. He brings the subtle gradations of vocal color that are considered the foundation of his art to the fore throughout the cycle, shading each word with care and genuine specificity of feeling. (Schöne Müllerin).
. . . one of the most searing accounts of this music ever . . . The poems aren't so much sung or even spoken as they are tattooed on your eardrums with Quasthoff's lapidary attention to detail. Everything counts in a performance upon which life and death seems to hinge. There's nothing patently unorthodox about what Quasthoff does; I can't say I heard things in the score I've never heard before. But I felt things I've never felt before . . . Song for song, Barenboim, too, is a marvel, playing with keen sensitivity to the smallest shifts in Schubert's expression.
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Bay Area Reporter (San Francisco) / 15. November 2005
Thomas Quasthoff's . . . attractive, relaxed bass-baritone voice is deployed with much sensitivity and, in the early songs, a tentative freshness which makes the miller's predicament entirely believable . . . this is an appealing performance of a masterpiece . . .
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International Record Review (London) / 01. December 2005
This is one of the most penny-plain performances of "Die schöne Müllerin" around: motivated and moulded by strictly musical rather than primarily verbal considerations, and with a disarming simplicity which reawakens the spirit of the folk-style of the poet Wilhelm Müller's verse.
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BBC Music Magazine (London) / 01. January 2006
A mellow, beautifully sung performance that puts many rivals in the shade.
With the deepest, richest voice of any, Thomas Quasthoff likewise strikes a balance between virile energy and poetic introspection . . . trademark care for a true, 'bowed' legato (Schubert accents are always noted, but never biffed) and illuminating variety of colour and perspective. Abetted by Justus Zeyen's finely calibrated accompaniments (you will rarely hear the brook murmur so limpidly, or Schubert's energising bass-lines so eloquently shaped), Quasthoff catches all the rapture and wonder of the early songs . . . tempers ardour with a confiding tenderness . . . Quasthoff's thoughtful, beautifully sung performance, more mellow in colouring than his rivals, movingly recreates a journey from innocence through awakening love to a spiritual awareness in which despair is tempered with stoicism.
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Gramophone (London) / 01. February 2006
Schubert's tender, tragic song cycle has been wonderfully recorded by many singers, but Quasthoff's performance shouldn't be missed. The intense beauty of his voice and the intelligence that underlies his interpretation are exceptional . . . The sense of wonder in "Wohin?" and the hypnotic inevitability of the final lullaby are just two of many luminously evoked moments.
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Emma Baker; Jessica Duchen,
Classic FM (London) / 01. February 2006
Quasthoff's voice is uniformly mellow, rich in tone, and elegantly colored . . . Zeyen's playing is very much parallel to the singing, in that it is fluent and beautiful . . . you will love this, and it will obviously win lots of awards: the recording quality is as sharp as you would expect from DG.
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Fanfare (Tenafly, NJ) / 01. May 2006
Beide Wiedergaben sind von einer brennenden, berührenden Intensität, die dennoch niemals exhibitionistisch und outriert wirkt. Larmoyanz und Wehleidigkeit sind verboten, bittere Ironie und mitunter Sarkasmus hingegen setzt Quasthoff in der "Winterreise" auf überzeugende Weise ein. Bei der "Müllerin" punktet er mit einer erschütternden emotionalen Schlichtheit und Wahrhaftigkeit, die wirklich ins Herz dieser Musik trifft und zu Herzen geht . . . Großartig gestaltet der Baßbariton hier den Aspekt der "inneren Emigration", ohne ihn intellektuell zu überfrachten . . . Besonders auch in der "Müllerin" bezieht Quasthoff ganz bewußt und wohlüberlegt den Wechsel vom Brust- zum Kopfregister als Ausdrucksmittel ein.
Bühne (Wien) / 01. December 2005
Die beiden spielen sich traumsicher die Lied-Bälle zu, da ist kein Zittern und Zagen. Ein Bariton muss sich den Zyklus immer viel härter erarbeiten als ein Tenor. Quasthoff macht das toll. Ist freudig-naiv, dann tödlich betrübt; sein Legato weitet sich ins visionär Schwebende, deutsche Innigkeit wird Weltkunst. Dabei von jeder Manier ungetrübt, klar, einfach und richtig. Das muss man hören.
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Fono Forum (Euskirchen) / 01. December 2005
Diese scheinbar so schlichten, alltäglichen Liedkompositionen bringt Quasthoff mit einer wohl heute unerreichten Farbnuancierung rüber. Er deklamiert mit seiner Stimme die von Schubert heraus (oder herein?) komponierte Doppelbödigkeit der Poesie wie ein Schauspieler, der an die Stelle von Geste und Mimik die Ausdrucksmittel der Stimme gesetzt hat. Da wirkt jede Strophe innerhalb eines Liedes wie ein ganz neues musikalische Kapitel, als würde Qusthoff vor unserem geistigen Auge die Seiten der Gedichte umblättern. Eine wunderbare, sehr berührende Aufnahme -- wäre es ein Gemälde, würde man sagen: ein waschechter Quasthoff!
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Tonart (Munich) / 02. December 2005
. . . hinter den biedermeierlichen Miniaturen vom Müllersburschen, der sich aus unglücklicher Liebe in den Bach stürzt, erschließt sich eine Seelenlandschaft von Weltverlorenheit und für den romantischen Künstler nicht untypischer Depression. Für einen Sänger bedeutet das daher, dass er einerseits den vermeintlich naiven Gesellen abbilden, andererseits aber auch psychologische Perspektiven berücksichtigen und außerdem eine gewisse kommentierende Distanz (jene der romantischen Ironie) mit einbringen soll. Die so vorgegebene Quadratur des Kreises gelingt Quasthoff überzeugend. Dem alten Vorurteil, die "Müllerin" sei eigentlich nur etwas für höhere Stimmen, hält Quasthoff eine reiche Palette klangdarstellerischer Mittel entgegen. Die Wut des Burschen auf den bei der Müllerin erfolgreicheren Jäger artikuliert er mit dunkler Basstinte. Aus dem abendlichen Lob des Müllermeisters macht er, wie mehrfach festgestellt wurde, für ein paar Takte eine "balladeske Miniatur-Oper". Die Fallhöhe des Werks erreicht er durch ein tragendes Piano und Mezzavoce, mit dem er den (Tenor-)Gestus des Müllers vorzustellen sucht.
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Opernwelt (Berlin) / 01. March 2006
Bei Thomas Quasthoff gehört die Vorfreude schon seit langem zum Erlebniskatalog, und auch bei einer Einspielung von Schuberts "Die schöne Müllerin" (Klavier: Justus Zeyen) wird die Erwartung an Großes nicht getrogen. Quasthoff ist ein Souverän seiner Mittel . . . Schlicht schön ist es . . .
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Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger / 20. June 2006
. . . nous avons assisté à des masterclasses données par Thomas Quasthoff. Ce fut pour nous un moment inoubliable. L'alpha et l'oméga des mystères du chant nous étaient révélés dans la parole la plus simple, la plus directe et la plus évidente. Le chanteur, qui montrait alors qu'il était la drôlerie, la profondeur et l'humble et grandiose mission du chanteur de lied.
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Classica - Repertoire (Paris) / 01. February 2006
Quasthoff, una de las voces más hermosas con que cuenta este género . . . aporta una versión que puede contarse entre las mejores que se hayan grabado de este ciclo.
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Melómano (Madrid) / 01. December 2005
Es difícil asistir a un recital de Quasthoff y no caer rendido a sus pies.
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Miguel Ángel de las Heras,
Ritmo (Madrid) / 01. February 2006
En la línea de extraordinaria expresividad y fraseo soberano, aparece una nueva grabación protagonizada por el más extraordinario cantante del panorama actual, el barítono alemán Thomas Quasthoff . . . Quasthoff, con toda su potencialidad expresiva, su energía y apasionamiento, y su sutil capacidad para los pequeños y minúsculos detalles, vuelve a darnos una enorme lección gracias a su extraordinaria capacidad de hacer suya, de «somatizar» la música de Schubert y los textos de Müller. De nuevo nos tenemos que rendir a una interpretación de las grandes, poliédrica y sustancial, de la mano de este maestro del lied que es ya Thomas Quasthoff en la madurez de su carrera. Justus Zeyen es un acompañante a la altura del solista vocal, un pianista compenetrado y aludido por el canto en simbiosis perfecta . . . Una Molinera para degustar y paladear con admiración, y colocar en los anaqueles al lado de las más excelsas.
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CD Compact (Barcelona) / 01. March 2006
Art and Nature
Thomas Quasthoff sings the "Müller Lieder"
"Ah, how difficult nature is," sighs Lord Tristan in Flotow's Martha. Some singers can sing entire song cycles on the subject. In singing - and especially in lieder singing - nothing is harder than to recreate what we call "naturalness" and "simplicity", precisely because these qualities are rarely available on tap. In most cases they have to be acquired through a mixture of hard work, insight and experience. The naturalness and simplicity that we find to exemplary effect in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte are qualities which, like Paradise, have to be regained. For this reason, if for no other, the role of the birdcatcher Papageno is only apparently easy to sing. Technically speaking, it should not be a problem for a well-trained lyric baritone - but how many singers (even world-famous ones) have had difficulty putting across the character's naturalness and simplicity, a difficulty mercilessly exposed by children, whose instinctive understanding of what is "natural" is generally infallible.
The situation is even more difficult with Schubert's song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. For some singers, these twenty settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller - known since they were first published in 1824 by the deliberately ambiguous alternative title of "Müller Lieder" - are the most demanding songs in the repertory. What may seem simple and folklike is anything but simple for the singer. The first of his difficulties stems from the fact that Schubert severely tests the interpreter's ability to produce a legato line. The eleventh song, Mein!, for example, is supposed to be the apprentice miller's song of triumph, but singers who fail to produce a seamless legato here will all too soon find themselves plunging into what Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has aptly described as "an abyss of interpolated aspirates": even the greatest singers have been heard to sing "Die-hi ge-he-lie-hieb-te-he Mü-hül-le-he-ri-hin i-hist ma-hain."
Next, the numerous strophic songs demand an interpreter capable of producing the subtlest and most varied colours. For Thomas Quasthoff, this is an essential ability: "The human voice is the most colourful of all musical instruments, and colour is the be-all and end-all of lieder singing. I don't just want to produce beautiful singing in cycles like Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise but to use the colours in my voice to do justice to their content, too. And how can you do justice to the songs in Die schöne Müllerin that deal with jealousy if you just sing 'beautifully'? Here you simply have to abandon the vocal line, otherwise these songs are insufficiently expressive. But it should never stand out and simply sound ugly. So much 'naturalism' tends rather to be counterproductive and even amateurish. And it's this that is so difficult: to do justice to the sort of expression that's required while using the artistic resources of singing."
If we reduce the Müller Lieder to something like a plot, then, in the words of Jochen Kowalski, they "tell a story that we have all experienced at some point in our lives: a sensitive soul has no chance in love as soon as 'Mr Right' turns up". But how closely should a performer stick to this "plot"? How far can he depart from the actual content of the songs in order to depict the action on a more abstract level as a cycle about love, hope, jealousy, despair and suicide? Or, to put it more simply: should the interpreter slip into the role of the miller's apprentice or assume the role of the narrator? For Thomas Quasthoff, this is not a question that can be answered unequivocally: "One is narrator and character at one and the same time. You're not reporting on events from outside but experiencing them while narrating them. After all, there's also something operatic about it - the main difference being that the singer can't hide behind a costume, make-up and sets, but stands there completely naked, with his own experiences and emotions that have to be brought to his interpretation.
The psychological states in Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise can be depicted in a believable way only if you are willing to explore these states. Only then will the result be something that we can call 'honest', 'true' and 'authentic'."
Whether the cycle really ends with the apprentice's suicide is "pure speculation", according to Thomas Quasthoff. "There is no clear proof of this in Schubert, no matter how much secondary literature you care to pore over. But to my own mind, there are far greater indications of this in Die schöne Müllerin than in Winterreise. In the case of the final song in Winterreise you could conclude that here's someone who has sought death but who ultimately does an about-turn and attempts a new beginning. But with the Müller Lieder I do tend to think that they end on a note of tragedy. In my own view, the cycle reflects Schubert's life, albeit on a higher level than a purely biographical one."
But what kind of a role is played by the purely biographical element when one is working on an interpretation? What about Schubert's position in society under Metternich's reactionary regime? "Whenever you're working on a piece, it is essential to examine the composer's situation within his own time," Quasthoff insists. "But many people are inclined to give more weight to the social and political background than to purely personal considerations. I think that in Schubert's case the image of a man at odds with society is just as one-sided (and therefore just as wrong) as the romantic cliché of the composer coming to terms through his art with his unhappiness in love. Of course Schubert was familiar with the sufferings caused by the world and by love - and by all that he brought down on himself. But he also lived. I mean, you don't catch syphilis just from composing. I was once attacked for saying this, but ultimately this simply shows that one has to be just as wary of simplifying things as of over-interpreting them. It is perhaps this that constitutes the particular field of tension surrounding Schubert: the complex, comprehensive nature of his personality - and the inspired simplicity of his music. And it is very much this simplicity that demands more from the performer than even the most complicated construct."
Thomas Voigt 7/2005
"To open oneself up to psychological states"
Thomas Quasthoff sings "Winterreise"
There are works of art with which one is never finished, either as a performer or as a listener. Among these works are not only Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Goethe's Faust and Wagner's Ring but also Schubert's Winterreise. A performance of Winterreise lasts around seventy minutes, but it can take an entire lifetime for a singer to come to terms with the work. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau spent more than fifty years exploring the cycle and, as his recordings reveal, the results differ markedly at different stages in his artistic development.
For Thomas Quasthoff, too, Winterreise is likely to be a lifelong challenge, and at some point we shall no doubt be able to compare his performances from the early, middle and later years of his professional career. He is one of those singers who with advancing age and increasing experience strike out in new directions, ever conscious of the fact that they will never reach their journey's end. The journey itself is the goal, which is why Quasthoff would never for a moment consider deciding on each step in advance: "I've heard performances of Winterreise, even by big-name singers, in which every note and every phrase was planned out right down to the very last detail - and every evening it sounded exactly the same. For me, this spells the end of music. Anyone who wants to reach his audience must allow himself to be inspired by the impulse of the moment."
When Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim performed Winterreise in the Berlin Philharmonie on 22 March 2005, only a few days before Good Friday, the audience seemed to be indisposed, at least at the beginning, a circumstance that is fortunately not apparent from the present DVD. "Winterreise in a storm of coughing," Klaus Geitel began his review in the Berliner Morgenpost. "The storm blew and wheezed from the rows of the Philharmonie into the faces of Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim as they performed Schubert's Winterreise at their festival concert... Only slowly did the audience gain control of itself and begin to listen in a concentrated manner. And so, against all expectation, the result proved to be a deeply moving and masterly evening of lieder interpretation. Quasthoff and Barenboim explored each song both sensitively and thoroughly."
To that extent, the present live recording may be regarded as a testimonial to the power of communication, not only in terms of the partnership between Quasthoff and Barenboim but also with regard to the artists' ability to communicate with their audience. Anyone who succeeds in turning a stressed-out and bronchitic metropolitan audience into a raptly attentive commonality of listeners must have something important to communicate. This is not something that can be done simply with a good vocal technique and a beguiling beauty of tone. According to Thomas Quasthoff, there are two things that make a good lieder singer: the ability to use the voice's whole colour spectrum and the art of being able to articulate a sentence or a word in a hundred different ways. In order to gain a complete grasp of the specific qualities of a song, Quasthoff advises his pupils to speak the text before they sing it: "This is a very elementary step, as things become clear to you that you may not notice when you sing the text. Before I became a singer, I was a newsreader, and this idea of reading something aloud to yourself is very useful for my work as a singer. The bulk of a piece becomes clear to you if you read it aloud. And then comes the second step, which is to see how the composer has set the words to music. Is it a one-to-one setting, is it in some way heightened, is it ironical and alienating, or are words transferred to what could be called a meta-level?"
When asked whether Schubert's Winterreise can also be interpreted as an indictment of the reactionary politics of the age of Metternich, Quasthoff offers a guarded response: "Schubert was by no means an unpolitical person, but nor was he a great revolutionary - at least there is no evidence for this. If he felt any social and political pressure, he did not rebel against it but withdrew into himself. And wallowing in grief was certainly not unique to Schubert, it was a striking feature of the time - it was clearly an emotional age. In this respect Schubert was certainly not an outsider. And I think he would have been very surprised to find what some interpreters and musicologists have read into his song cycles; I doubt whether he invested his 'eerie songs' with ideas of this kind. What always fascinates me about Schubert is his simplicity - and in this simplicity he is inspired."
The fact that for Quasthoff the idea of "withdrawing into oneself" was more important than "rebelling against outward circumstances" is evident from his Berlin Winterreise. Klaus Geitel again: "Quasthoff knows how to produce emotional shocks by means of a mere breath. He sings purposefully and precisely with a voice that appears to fail him at moments of inner turmoil. He plunges deep into the wanderer's psychological states and gives voice to them in a quite wonderful way. He is the singer of loneliness. In this he is incomparable... Abandoned to Schubert's tragic world, Quasthoff and Barenboim walk hand in hand, knee-deep in artificial snow, undertaking this terrible winter's journey together, a journey that one can easily imagine must have alarmed Schubert's circle of friends when he first played and sang it to them."
"Plunging deep into the wanderer's psychological states" - this phrase must have struck a chord with Thomas Quasthoff. For unlike many singers, who comment on the psychological depths of Winterreise from what might be termed a Philharmonic distance, Quasthoff is not squeamish about his emotions: "You can give a credible performance of Winterreise only if you open yourself up to these psychological states. Only then will the result be something that we call 'honest' or 'true' or 'authentic'. At the same time you have to be careful, especially with a work like Winterreise, that you don't find yourself carried away and impose on the cycle a uniformly apocalyptic mood. As an interpreter, one is constantly required to find a balance between suffering, resignation and inner revolt. If this balance is wrong, the work as a whole may go completely off the rails. That is another reason why Winterreise is an endless tightrope walk." Thomas Voigt 7/2005