Opera News review: 

 Songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Strauss. Texts and translations.

Songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Strauss. Texts and translations. ATMA Classique ACD2 2571

This CD would be worth purchasing only to hear Nathan Berg and Julius Drake's perfomance of "Der Erlkönig." Berg is a superb vocal character actor (an ability he proves again later in the recital with "Der Tod und das Mädchen" and Strauss's "Ach weh mir unglückhafter Mann"). He accesses an urgent baritone to portray the child, an imperious bass for the father and — best of all — the flat, nasalized Viennese accent of a Staatsoper character tenor, with just a hint of lisp and laugh in the voice, to create a creepy elf king. Just as amazing is the articulated pianism of Drake, in a song so difficult that many pianists, including famous ones, refuse to play it.

The booklet notes that Berg and Drake have been making music since their college days at the Guildhall School. It shows. The recital is full of detailed surprises, in a recital of mostly highly traversed Lieder repertoire. My favorite was Drake's tag at the end of the maiden's speech in "Der Tod und das Mädchen," a phrase we've all heard dozens of times. It's only four chords, but Drake manages to make it foreshadow Death's appearance, rather than serve only as a parenthesis for the maiden.

Berg's assets are many. His technique is impeccable, and a byproduct of that is beautiful diction. He can differentiate the sound at will from brilliant to soft and at both extremes of his wide range, as he does in Schubert's "Das Abendrot," where he traverses two octaves time and again in the smoothest manner. His is a detailed approach, which one wants in a recitalist. He never fails to deliver a pallid tone on words such as "hopeless" or "pale." His articulation is utterly precise in even the smallest of turns or division notes. An entire world seems to live in his "o" vowel (making all utterances of "Tod" especially beguiling, as in the third of the Brahms "Four Serious Songs").

Sometimes I wished for more drawn legato and line and less artful word color and stress. In Schumann's "Meine Rose" Drake plays a gorgeous, violin-like legato melody in the top voice, but Berg lifts frequently in his lines, rather than offering a sustained cello in response. It's a choice, and one that a lesser singer wouldn't be able to make. Berg can sing deliciously long, spinning lines when he wants, with a seemingly limitless supply of breath. He uses this to advantage in the Brahms and Strauss songs. "Morgen" is not a song one expects to be terribly moved by when it is sung by a bass-baritone — the diaphanous quality of a silvery soprano can only be approximated in this tessitura. But Berg sings the song with disarming poise and honesty. Both qualities are hallmarks of this entire recital.

DREW MINTER, February 2009, vol 73: no.8,Opera News

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