OPERA NEWS - Günther Groissböck: Herz/Tod
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Günther Groissböck: Herz/Tod

CD Button Music by Brahms, Mahler, Wagner and Wolf. Huber, piano. Texts and translations, Decca 481 6957

Recordings Gunther Groissbock Cover 119

EVEN BACK WHEN LIEDER recitals were often released on disc, basses were underrepresented. Günther Groissböck’s new recital is thus doubly welcome. He offers music that might be expected from an operatic bass—Wolf’s Michelangelo settings and Brahms’s Vier Ernste Gesänge—and music that might be sung by anyone, such as Mahler’s Rückert settings. He also offers a real surprise—Wagner’s Wesendonck settings. 

The Wagner turns out to be the most provocative interpretation in the recital. I’ve never heard a bass sing even one of these songs—no doubt basses don’t sing them because Wagner published them under the title Five Songs for Woman’sVoice—and hearing a bass in this music certainly causes the listener to think about them as basic German art songs. The most radical reinterpretation is of the third, “Im Treibhaus,” which is so often sung as if at a distance. Singers usually are aware of the way this material turned into the opening of Act III of Tristan, bringing out the straining against death that is depicted at this point in the opera. But Groissböck sings the song in a direct manner, as one who is in the picture himself. The fourth song, “Schmerzen,” is unusually brisk and vigorous, almost tortured, which in this performance raises unexpected hints of Wotan’s farewell. Elsewhere, “Der Engel” is nicely if conventionally vocalized, and there’s nothing very dreamy about “Träume” in Groissböck’s downward transposition.

Wolf’s Michelangelo songs qualify as some of the deepest emotional outpourings in the repertoire. While it’s unfair to compare a singer to the historic recordings of Hans Hotter and Alexander Kipnis, it’s perhaps fair to note that Groissböck’s versions have a moment-to-moment quality, rather than a feeling of material explored, tempered and re-created whole. The singing is polished, sometimes more than that, but there is little of the naked plea—the subservience—that these songs demand.

Downward transpositions likewise change the textures of the Ernste Gesänge, and Groissböck, like so many interpreters, puts too much of the “serious” quality of the texts into the music. These songs would have responded better, as the Wagner did, to interpretations that treat them as simply any other Brahms songs. (Gerald Finley and Julius Drake have demonstrated this.) The lowered keys also make pianist Gerold Huber’s job harder, though he copes well. The last two of the Mahler songs pose other problems for a pianist; even when Mahler wrote piano parts, he was still thinking of eventual orchestral versions. Huber does quite brilliantly in making something pianistically plausible out of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.”

Ultimately, the “Herz/Tod” (heart/death) concept is too limiting for these artists. It was instructive to listen to the album in coincidental conjunction with a viewing of Groissböck’s performance as Pogner in Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Meistersinger from Bayreuth, where the bass has a grand time giving a winking, goofy impression of Franz Liszt. There’s no chance on this album for him to tell a story, crack a joke or make a double entendre, and that’s a loss. —William R. Braun

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