Cher Public

Bolder sister

I heard Brigitte Fassbaender live only twice—in 1985, as Octavian in a San Francisco Opera Der Rosenkavalier, and in 1994, at her recital of Wolf’s Mörike Lieder at Alice Tully Hall. But more than a decade earlier, through recordings, I’d already fallen in love with her voice and artistry.

Fassbaender is the daughter of legendary German baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, and her voice seems to almost belong to a different time, when mezzos sounded richer and fruitier. There’s no mistaking the ripe color and amplitude of her tone, nor—despite an upper register that allowed her to sing the occasional Amneris and Eboli—would she ever be mistaken for a soprano.

The sound is piquant and, I’d hazard to guess, instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with her work. I find it beautiful, though it’s idiosyncratic for sure, with a biting metallic undertone that might take some getting used to.

Her interpretive scale impresses even more. Fassbaender’s diction, especially in her native German, is crystal clear, with consonants relished and vowels never distorted. She is nothing if not a bold singer, and words and ideas are alive with a sense of meaning.

In one recorded example not from the 11-CD set recently issued by Deutsche Grammophon—her performance of Weill & Brecht’s Die Sieben Todsünden—even a non-speaker would understand the implications of “Meine Schwester ist schön, ich bin praktisch,” so sly, forthright, and deliciously droll is her delivery.

“Forthright,” “Sly,” “Bold,” and indeed, the very phrase quoted above—I’m aware that all this sounds like code. So, let’s put it out there: Fassbaender has, for many years, been an iconic presence for lesbians. To the best of my knowledge, the artist herself is mum on the subject of her sexuality, but her fans certainly aren’t: note in particular literary scholar Terry Castle’s adulatory “In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender,” one essay in her collection The Apparitional Lesbian.

Some of this sense of identification no doubt stems from Fassbaender’s repertoire, which includes many of opera’s trouser roles. More unusually, the mezzo also focused on a number of song cycles traditionally associated with male singers, including Schubert’s Winterreise, Die Schöne Müllerin, and the songs often grouped together as Schwanengesang among others.

The latter two recordings are included in this marvelous collection, issued to commemorate Fassbaender’s 80th birthday. (Her Winterreise, recorded for EMI, is not here, but is part of another equally fine 8-CD set that was released several years ago, and now seems difficult to find. If you see it, grab it!)

Space allows only so much coverage for a survey like this, so my plan is to mention the contents of each CD in this new DG collection, and to highlight a few specific examples within them. There’s really no better place to begin than with the two Schubert discs, since they document Fassbaender’s artistry at its best.

Die Schöne Müllerin is a peculiar start, in part because of its oddness. The cycle’s narrator is a young man, and Fassbaender’s mezzo, though basically still fresh at age 54, doesn’t sound either youthful or masculine. But few have better suggested the impetuous energy of “Mein!” (even though the ardent high notes sometimes discolor), or, from another perspective, the quiet inner sadness of “Pause.”

The final song, “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” is often a showpiece for legato line; in Fassbaender’s case, it’s predictably on the faster end of the spectrum, and the sense of shape conveyed more through the words and plangent tonal color (sometimes occluded) than endless breath. I’ve heard more beautifully sung performances ofDie Schöne Müllerin, but none more vivid and touching.

Much the same can be said for her Schwanengesang. Here, the touchstone songs might be “Abschied” (incomparable in its jauntiness), a throbbingly dramatic “Der Atlas,” and an almost whispered “Die Taubenpost,” which here rather startlingly begins the CD (it’s more often programmed at the end). In both Schubert cycles, Aribert Reimann, a composer in his own right, is Fassbaender’s equally characterful accompanist.

Performances of Frauenliebe und Leben settings by Carl Loewe and the much more familiar one by Robert Schumann anchor discs devoted to each composer. Again, the mature mezzo is not aurally an obvious young bride, but her gorgeously plummy “Du Ring an meinem Finger” and her ecstatic “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern” in the Schumann convince utterly.

If I don’t find her equally compelling in Loewe’s setting, that’s as much an issue with the composer. Loewe is a taste I’ve never acquired—but Fassbaender’s reading of his “Ach niege, du Schmerzenreiche,” a simple but masterful monologue from Faust, is a superb piece of singing/acting. (The fine pianists here are Irwin Gage in the Schumann and Cord Garben in the Loewe.)

Wolf’s Mörike Lieder are favorites of mine, and mostly they play to Fassbaender’s strengths. Truthfully, the tone spreads in some of the more sustained passages. This is most noticeable in quiet spots and mars the sublimely beautiful “Auf ein altes Bild.” But for me, this is still the performance I return to for its profundity. “Der Feuerreiter” is absolutely riveting in its no-holds-barred aggressiveness.

Similar virtues and limitations can be heard in a disc devoted to Richard Strauss (a poignant “Morgen”) and Liszt (an evocative “Die Drei Zigeuner”). More Liszt appears on a disc that also contains Dvorak’s frisky Moravian duets (recorded a few years earlier, they find Fassbaender in especially good voice, and very well paired with soprano Julianne Banse).

This disc is filled out with Brahms’ vocal ensembles—again, the material doesn’t strike me as top-tier, but the performances—by Fassbaender, soprano Edith Mathis, tenor Peter Schreier, and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau—certainly are.

The eighth disc in the collection brings us finally to Mahler, predictably a Fassbaender specialty. This collection includes what for me is the composer’s Holy Trinity—Rückert-Lieder ,Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen and Kindertotenlieder. It was recorded in 1989, at a point when her voice (at least when heard with an orchestra) began to spread under pressure.

Still, these are magnificent performances, full-voiced and fuller of soul. If you want to sample just one to get a sense of her artistry, try “In diesem Wetter,” the heart-stopping finale of Kindertotenlieder. Riccardo Chailly and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin provide able, if not magical, support.

There’s more Mahler on a disc that aggregates Fassbaender’s contributions to Giulini’s Das Lied von der Erde recording, alongside a typically vivid performance of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death (conducted by Neeme Järvi) and Brahms’ Alt-Rhapsodie (conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli). The stately grandeur of the last is a rather odd mood for this singer, but she manages it.

On the other hand, the Mahler is absolutely ideal, and one passage in particular would be one of my demonstration pieces for Fassbaender at her best. It’s “Von der Schönheit”—in particular, the section where the young men on horseback are seen galloping through the hills (it begins around 3:00).

Fassbaender throws herself into this thrillingly, her chest voice pushed almost as one might get from a Kabarett singer. (But know that she’s even more hair-raising in a now-difficult-to-find recording of this with Cyprien Katsaris playing Mahler’s own piano reduction.)

Discs 10 and 11 are also compilations, and finally give us Fassbaender as an opera singer, including her lovely “Einsam wachend in der Nacht” from Carlos Kleiber’s Tristan recording. Not from opera, we have her superbly on-the-words performance of the Waldtaube solo in Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder.

For me, though,the real triumph here is Fassbaender’s Azucena from Giulini’s recording of Il Trovatore. It’s scrupulously musical (yes, she does the trills in “Stride la vampa”), vibrantly colored, and fully engaged with the drama. She hasn’t the tonal compactness or native fluency of a Fiorenza Cossotto or a Giulietta Simionato, but she convinces in her own very special way.

The final disc is even more of a grab bag, with recordings from 1964 to 1990, and a wide range of composers. The earliest excerpts, from Il Giardino d’amore, a charming Alessandro Scarlatti cantata, show Fassbaender’s voice at its most youthful and gorgeous, as do Annio’s solos from Istvan Kertesz’s recording of La Clemenza di Tito. I’m glad to have souvenirs here of both her saucy Dorabella and her uncommonly contralto-ish Hänsel.

But it’s the final two excerpts that most embody Fassbaender’s operatic persona—as a swaggering, every note in place, Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus. There’s so much panache, you can almost hear the monocle!

It’s a suitable, joyous close to an extraordinary musical journey. I wish only that the elegantly compact set—full of wonderful photos, and including in its booklet a winning recent interview—also had texts and translations. But most of them are easy to find via online resources, and at a bargain price, this is must for collectors.

Still, even these 11 CDs don’t tell the whole Brigitte Fassbaender story. The 8 CD “Icon” box that EMI issued some years ago has an entirely different collection of recordings, including five CDs of lieder from earlier in her career that are some of her very greatest performances. That’s a tale for another article—but meanwhile, keep a look out!

And a very happy 80th birthday to the great Brigitte Fassbaender, who—as a character in All About Eve puts it—has earned her place out of the sun!