BEETHOVEN Lieder and Bagatelles
Interlacing a selection of (mainly) popular Lieder with piano miniatures, Werner Güra and Christoph Berner here create the Beethovenian answer to a Schubertiade. Although the composer designed the Op 126 Bagatelles – his last music for piano – as a cycle, the recipe works well. There are some revealing correspondences, too: the songful, gently ornamental Bagatelle No 1 in G, here placed before An die ferne Geliebte, anticipates the cycle both in mood and in its technique of continual variation. Playing on an 1847 Streicher fortepiano – a direct descendant of the kind of instrument Beethoven knew – Berner relishes their quirkiness, explosive energy and rarefied lyricism. He bends the pulse liberally, yet is always mindful of the music’s onward flow. The fortepiano’s bell-like treble and slightly hazy resonance are heard to particularly beguiling effect in the idyllic barcarolle of No 5 in G; and Beethoven’s characteristic chasms between treble and bass sound that much more arresting with the fortepiano’s extreme timbre contrasts between registers.
Berner is also a discerning and poetic partner – never a mere sidekick – in the Lieder, which range in tone from the desolate ‘Resignation’ to the exuberant, mildly risqué ‘Der Kuss’. Güra’s mellifluous tenor has lost none of the freshness of a decade and more ago. He sings An die ferne Geliebte with a wondering, confiding intimacy, punctuated by surges of excited urgency. Nos 3, 4 and 5 are properly light and airborne. Singer and pianist conjure a trance-like stillness in the central verse of No 2 and at the sunset vision in the final song, before the unforced exultation of the end, enhanced by the ringing ease of Güra’s top register. Berner’s handling of the potentially tricky transitions between the songs seems spot-on, with Beethoven’s detailed dynamics and accents precisely observed and each song seeming to emerge naturally from its predecessor.
In ‘Zärtliche Liebe’ (aka ‘Ich liebe dich’) Güra tends to stress words at the expense of a pure legato line – simplicity is surely of the essence here. At the opening of the Italianate ‘Adelaide’ he likewise favours intensity of feeling over bel canto elegance. But with his quicksilver response to text and mood he always compels attention, whether in the two contrasting settings of ‘An die Hoffnung’ that frame the recital (the hushed awe of the later song beautifully caught), the restrained Innigkeit of ‘Wonne der Wehmut’ – here a true duet between voice and piano – or the sly pointing and timing of ‘Der Kuss’, abetted by volleys of keyboard laughter, a further reminder of Berner’s vivid contribution to the success of the whole delightful enterprise.