Berger & Prey in a Rare Joint Recital

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WOLF: Italienisches Liederbuch.1-3 Heimweh.2,5 Fuβreise.2,5 SCHUMANN: Frauenliebe und Leben.1,4MENDELSSOHN: Auf Flügeln des Gesänges.1.4 Gruss.1.4 LOEWE: Die Uhr.2,5 Tom der Reimer.2,5 SCHUBERT: Hark, Hark the Lark.2,5 Heidenröslein.2,5 Rosamunde: Der Vollmund strahlt.2,6 GRIEG: On the Water.2,6 I Love Thee.2,6 BRAHMS: Four Serious Songs2,7 / 1Erna Berger, sop; 2Hermann Prey, bar; 3Günther Weiβenborn, 4Ernst-Günther Scherzer, 5Michael Raucheisen, 6Herbert Heinemann, 7Martin Mälzer,  pno / Profil 8029

This reissue is comprised of four different recording sessions. The first two, done at the Berlin-Zehlendorf, are comprised of the Wolf Italian Song Book (1959),Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and the Mendelssohn songs (1956). The remaining two are recording sessions featuring the very young (23 and 24 years old) Hermann Prey singing Loewe, Schubert, Grieg and Brahms. One of the striking features of this recording is that soprano Erna Berger, then 56 years old, still retained her youthful beauty of tone and firmness of voice production despite her being middle-aged.

The other striking feature is that, although the music is beautifully vocalized, there isn’t much here in the way of interpretation. Berger never was much known or admired as a lieder singer. Prey was, but later in his career. On these recordings, he is still in an embryonic stage of his career, giving dramatic, general interpretations rather than penetrating and detailed ones.

Yet this lack of interpretation is not quite as damaging in most of this music as one might expect, particularly in the Wolf, though I prefer the recordings by Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk with Steuart Bedford as pianist and the one by Michaela Selinger and Wolfgang Holzmair with Georg Beckmann. Prey is not as lacking in interpretation as Berger, and there is no question that his voice is in pristine condition: it almost completely lacks that slight “husky” sound that crept into his voice by the mid-1960s and stayed there ‘til the end of his career. There is also the joy of hearing Berger recorded in fairly modern sound, not stereo, alas, but state-of-the-art high fidelity. Listening to the Italian Song Book, it almost sounds like a sensitive young man varying his tone to match the words of the songs alternating with a matronly woman whose principal emotion is open-hearted cheerfulness. It also doesn’t help that Günther Weiβenborn was a fairly prosaic and routine accompanist.

Surprisingly, Berger does do some interpretation in Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, though, again, the accompanist—this time, one Ernst-Günther Scherzer—is just adequate, in fact even drippier than Weiβenborn. Predictably, however, Berger sings Mendelssohn’s On Wings of Song quite beautifully. The same can be said for Prey’s Tom der Reimer, although his interpretation cannot hold a candle to the great Leo Slezak. Heimweh, however, is quite good.

Overall, then, a curio from the past, showing to as good advantage as possible the tonal beauty and expressive range (such as it was) of Berger, plus the tonal beauty and expressive capabilities of young Prey.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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