Anja Harteros’ “Mystery” CD

cover 0746935760199

WAGNER: Wesendonck-Lieder. BERG: 7 Frühe Lieder. MAHLER: Rückert-Lieder / Anja Harteros, sop; Munich Philharmonic Orch.; Valery Gergiev, cond / Munich Philharmonic 0746935760199

Put on your deerstalker hats and pull out your magnifying glasses, boys and girls, because we have a real Sherlock Holmesian mystery on our hands here.

I just happened to log into the Naxos Music Library yesterday to check on some recordings of ballads and lieder by Carl Loewe when, le and behold, the front cover image of this CD suddenly appeared in the New Releases section. I was flabbergasted because, although it was listed for release this month (August), it was NOT in the Naxos New Release Catalog for either the first two or last two weeks of August when they came out in September. I know, because I really like Anja Harteros and would gladly have auditioned any CD she made for possible review.

Happily, I found all of the tracks on YouTube and so was able to covert them to MP3 files and download them, which is how I am reviewing this disc. I was also quite fortunate that when I clicked on the image in the NML, I was able to download the booklet. But this just goes to show you how little any CD is promoted nowadays, particularly a private label like this disc which was issued by the Münchner Philharmoniker itself.

Now, to be honest I was a little leery of the disc because the conductor is Valery Gergiev, who morphed from one of the most exciting and energized conductors in the world during the 1990s and early 2000s into a slow, drippy, maudlin conductor once he began performing with regularity in London. The British have this tendency to do this to their conductors because the classical music public there prefers slow, drippy, maudlin performances of classical music. They deem it “touching” and “deep” and “meaningful” when in fact it is none of that.

But what the heck…none of these song cycles exactly calls for a muscular reading anyway, and since Harteros was the star of the show, I decided to take the plunge.

I remembered Harteros’ voice well from her years at the Metropolitan Opera (only two seasons, I think) in the late 1990s: firm and brilliant with a fast but controlled vibrato. Twenty-some years on, the voice has aged a bit. The once-fresh sound is now more mature, with some hardness in the tone I didn’t hear back then, and her vibrato is a little looser than it once was, but she can still control the voice well, sing with feeling and make an impact when the mood calls for it…note, for instance, her impassioned performance of “Stehe still!” in the Wesendonck-Lieder. Gergiev’s conducting sounds to me a shade more exciting at times than he usually sounds in England; I think the Munich orchestra suits him better. This is an excellent interpretation of these songs that I would put on a par with the ancient recording by Emma Eames or the 1950s performance by Martha Mödl, which are my two favorite versions.

Harteros’ performances of Berg’s seven early songs are also very good, but not quite on the level of the late Jessye Norman, whose recording if them is still my gold standard (Magda Laszlo was also excellent). Nonetheless, she gets into the words and the mood of each song very well.

I wonder, however, at the wisdom of programming a CD of songs which are mostly all in the same tempo (slow) and mood (reflective). People who work in radio know how to contrast moods by alternating songs or instrumental pieces of varying moods and tempi, and I think that Harteros should have contrasted interspersing some faster, more energetic songs with the slow, reflective ones. Other than that, this is a very good release and, if anything, Harteros’ voice sounds at its freshest and most silvery in the Rückert-Lieder of Mahler.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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