More Classical Song Gems from Shirai

frontShirai front cover

HÖLDERLIN SONGS / ULLMANN: Abendphantasie. 2 Hölderlin-Lieder, No. 2: Der Frühling. EISLER: 6 Hölderlin fragments. KOMMA: 5 Fragments of Friedrich Hölderlin. REUTTER: 3 Lieder nach Gedichten von Friedrich Hölderlin. FRÜHLICH: Ruckkehr in der Heimat. CORNELIUS: Sonnenuntergang. JARNACH: 4 Lieder, Op. 7: No. 2, An die Rose. HAUER: 3 Songs, Op. 12 No. 1: Ehmals und jetzt. PFITZNER: 4 Songs, Op. 29 No. 1: Abbitte. FORTNER: Geh unter, schöne Sonne. BRITTEN: 6 Hölderlin Fragments, Op. 61 No. 5: Halfte des Lebens / Mitsuki Shirai, mezzo-soprano; Hartmut Höll, pianist / Capriccio 10 534

EUROPEAN SONG BOOK / SCHOECK: 28 Songs, Op. 60 No. 10: Der romische Brunnen. BERG: 4 Lieder, Op. 2. HINDEMITH: 2 Songs, No. 1: Image. NUMMI: Viorella. 6 Hölderlin Fragments, Op. 61 No. 5: Halfte des Lebens. WEBERN: 4 Songs, Op. 4. RESPIGHI: 4 Lirische, P. 108 No. 1: Tempo assai lontani. BERIO: 4 Canzoni Populari: No. 3, Avendo gran disio. KRENEK: Gesange des spaten Jahres, Op. 71 No. 4: Ballade vom Fest. EISLER: An eine Stadt, “Heidelberg.” Souvenir of Eichendorff & Schumann. DEBUSSY: Noel des Enfants qui n’ont plus de Maisons. POULENC: C. BEYDTS: La Colombe Poignardee. SZYMANOWSKI: 7 Songs, Op. 54: Nos. 1-5. KILLMAYER: 9 Lieder: Nos. 5, 6 & 9 / Mitsuko Shirai, mezzo-soprano; Hartmut Höll, pianist / Capriccio 67 024

Having been deeply impressed by Mitsuko Shirai’s 70th Birthday Album, I decided to look into some of the other things she has recorded. In addition to a fair amount of conventional 19th-century German lieder (Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss etc.), including a complete Die Winterreise—apparently she’s one of only two mezzo-sopranos who have tackled this song cycle written for tenor (the other being Brigitte Fassbaender)—I came across an album of songs by Anton Webern (mostly the early ones, but also the 5 Songs and the four Op. 12 lieder) and these two discs, which are all over the map in terms of chronology and musical style.

What impresses me so much about Shirai is that, in addition to being a very dramatic and intense interpreter (and apparently so from the time of her emergence as a major artist in 1972), she also has a beautiful, rounded tone that she can lighten, darken, or color at will. This is not an insignificant thing. When you think of her great contemporaries—Janet Baker, Brigitte Fassbaender, Jan de Gaetani—you recall the intensity of their singing but also their unusual and sometimes acidic timbres. This is not an insult; I would have walked over broken glass in my bare feet to hear any one of those three in person, and fortunately I was able to hear two of them, Baker and de Gaetani. In fact, I was the one who recommended de Gaetani to a local conductor to sing Britten’s Phaedra cantata, which she did and brilliantly so. But none of them had “beautiful” voices in the strict sense of the word. De Gaetani’s voice was lean, pleasant in its own way, but it was the drama of her singing that grabbed you. Baker and Fassbaender were even more dramatic—their voices were larger and so they sang more opera than de Gaetani did (although I did hear the latter in the American premiere of Peter Mazwell Davies’ Murder in the Cathedral)—but they certainly had a few drops of acid in their tone. Shirai’s voice is al honey and rue, almost a mezzo-soprano extension of someone like Gundula Janowitz, but far more interesting than the German soprano.

The first recital listed above, issued in 1994, is typical of Shirai’s and Hartmut Höll’s range of interests. Nearly all of the composers listed here are 20th century, not 19th, yet they are settings of the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, who died in 1843. I was most impressed in this collection by the six songs of Hanns Eisler, a composer whose other music has largely left me cold. In this set of songs, however, he reveals a fine conception of the lyric style and interesting compositional style. But Shirai can make lemonade out of any old lemon, because she sings everything with a superb legato, rounded phrasing and perfect voice placement and breath control. When you listen to Shirai, in fact, you stop thinking about such things because after a few moments you realize that she has a perfect voice. There is a very small amount of nasality in the upper mid-range, but that simply gives the voice character. Otherwise, her timbre is as beautiful in the middle and bottom of the voice as it is at the top. This is extraordinarily rare among singers, particularly lieder singers and specifically mezzo lieder singers. The standard in this field was set a century ago by Elena Gerhardt, the celebrated German lieder singer whose unusual and rather nasal tone was combined with an intense expression (but also a good legato). Occasionally one heard exceptions like Christa Ludwig, but even Ludwig was not able to fine-tune her voice as well as Shirai, probably because it was such a large instrument. Soprano Régine Crespin, who had a phenomenal chest register, also sang lieder in mezzo keys and was also an interesting interpreter, but neither she nor Ludwig bothered much with 20th-century composers. They stuck to the older classics, though Crespin did include some Debussy in her repertoire.

What I find intriguing about the Shiral-Höll duo is that although the singer remains constant to her legato phrasing regardless of era, the pianist does indeed change his approach to match the era of the music. This means that in more modern composers he takes a more angular approach to his playing, pointing up the rhythm and astringent harmonies while his wife goes about her business. Occasionally, as in the midst of Karl Michael Komma’s Wenn über dem Weinberg es Flammt, one hears Shirai “pinch” her tone so that the voice becomes leaner and more pointed in order to emphasize the text. She is always deeply immersed in the words, and in fact her German pronunciation almost sounds like that of a native speaker, except that she avoids the harsher consonants and more nasal vowels that some singers use. In the same composer’s Zu Rossen she opens up her high notes with an almost startling brilliance of tone, placing the voice perfectly “in the dome of the head” as the old voice teachers used to say.

A rare find, for me, was the music of Hermann Reuter. Although he lived his entire life in the 20th century (1900-1985), the first half of his opening song, Sonnenuntergang, sounds very 19th-century-ish, but then you hear the harmony begin to shift and you realize you’re not in that century. The Pfitzner and Britten songs are more familiar territory.

But not so most of the songs on the second album, recorded in 2003. Shirai’s and Höll’s hair is gray-white by this time; she was 56 years old at the time, and the voice remains unchanged in timbre, control and basic sound. Yet if anything, her interpretations had grown even subtler. This is especially apparent in Alban Berg’s Op. 2 songs. As well as others may have sung Berg, among them Jessye Norman, Chloé Owen and Susan Graham, Shirai goes them one better. She limns the music so delicately as to almost seem afraid it will break if attacked too hard, but as it turns out this is perfect for these specific songs. She opens up the voice again for Seppo Nummi’s excellent tune Vuorella before again retreating from the sound barrier for the Webern songs (she also thrown in another version of the Britten Hölderlin song for good measure).

In the songs by Respighi and Berio, I note a weakness: her Italian diction isn’t as perfect as her German. The consonants are clear, but the words aren’t pronounced quite right. A small point, but one must be honest. Yet her Italian vocal style is excellent, so there is a compensation. The Ernst Krenek piece almost sounds like a German cabaret number with its occasional spoken lines, yet the music is so harmonically modern as to belie that environment. Shirai is completely at home in this music, as she also is in the other Eisler songs heard on this disc.

In the Debussy song—surely one of his least-known—Shirai’s French sounds more like Italian, but she catches the mood of the piece wonderfully. The five Szymanowski songs are sung in what passes for English; we shall be charitable and draw a curtain on a discussion of her English diction. The three songs by Wilhelm Killmayer, very abstract and in German, are much more up her alley.

And so we conclude this episode of Mitsuki Shirai’s artistry. I will add but two things. First, her recording of Die Winterreise, though unusual, is certainly the equal of the best tenor performances out there (Peter Pears, Peter Anders and Peter Schreier). And second, Shirai contracted Gillian Beret Syndrome in 2006 and became completely paralyzed, yet this tough little woman fought back. After months of strenuous physical therapy, she regained all her motor skills including the ability to sing. That’s TOUGH. One more reason for us to admire her!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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