How does one explain the continuing flow of recordings of lieder when the lied and the number of its public practitioners seems to be declining, even in the German-speaking world?

Have recording companies become charitable institutions? Are they run by fanatical art-song lovers? Doubtful. Yet if recordings of this rarefied repertory are appearing with increasing frequency, indicating the availability of customers for those recordings, why are song recitals such rarities? A puzzlement.

The father figure among post-World War II exponents of the genre is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who continues into his 60s to find new repertory to record while rerecording the standards that have served him for nearly four decades. But recent outings, delivered with the merest thread of a voice, are unlikely to win him or the art form he espouses many converts.

Prime Fischer-Dieskau is quite another matter, and from Germany's Orfeo Records comes an unexpected bonanza: five compact discs documenting the baritone's Salzburg Festival recitals between 1957 and 1965. Each volume, in recorded sound of remarkable clarity with only the barest trace of tape hiss, is devoted to a different composer: Schubert (140 101), Brahms (140 201), Schumann (140 301), Wolf (140 401) and Beethoven (140 501).

More so than all but a handful of his many studio recordings, these discs exhibit the qualities of intelligence and vocal fluency for which this most influential artist has been celebrated. The qualities that have given credence to his detractors (and more critical admirers)--the tendency to overact with the voice, the explosive consonants, the unsupported register extremes--are not to be found here.

Rather, one hears a musician of staggering communicative powers at his most natural, singing with purity of tone, pointing words and dramatic situation with potent economy of means.

But he is not doing it alone. He has with him, every step of the way, the incomparably supportive and enhancing collaboration of the late Gerald Moore at the piano.

Space permits listing of only a few high points of this treasurable anthology: the hushed legato of "Nachtviolen" and the chillingly incisive declamation of the horrific "Der Zwerg" of Schubert; the touching wistfulness of Schumann's "Erstes Gruen" and the heady passion of his "Stille Liebe"; the manic tension of Wolf's "Feurreiter," and the graceful melodic arches of Beethoven's "Adelaide."

Hermann Prey's darker, weightier baritone has, unlike the Fischer-Dieskau instrument, retained its freshness to an astonishing degree--at 58, he is only four years younger than his venerated colleague. In Prey's recent recording of Schubert's song-cycle "Die schoene Muellerin" (Denon 33C0-1072, CD only) the voice is splendidly firm and flexible.

This is Prey's fourth recorded go at the cycle and perhaps the best sung of the four. But he remains an off-puttingly staid interpreter of this music. The breezy, youthful charm that is at the heart of Schubert's melodies and Wilhelm Mueller's quaintly naive poems is not conveyed by the singer, or in the deadly earnest accompaniment of Philippe Bianconi.

Prey is, however, at the top of his form--interpretively as well as vocally--in an attractive miscellany called, simply, "Love Songs," in which he is joined by his regular pianist, the admirable Leonard Hokanson. The recital comprises mostly familiar material: Schubert's "Fischerweise," Schumann's "Widmung," Richard Strauss' "Staendchen," Liszt's "O komm im Traum," Beethoven's "Ich liebe Dich" and some 20 others (Denon 33CO-1254, CD only).

Some younger, lesser-known art-song practitioners--soprano Mitsuko Shirai, mezzo Marjana Lipovsek, tenor Josef Protschka and bass Matthias Hoelle--are heard in a lovely concert of Schumann songs for multiple voices on Capriccio (10 079, CD only), a German label newly arrived on the American market.

Particularly distinguished among these little-known gems are the "Spanisches Liederspiel," composed well beyond the time Schumann had supposedly exhausted his songwriting talent, and the ravishing, earlier and equally rare set of soprano-tenor duets, Opus 78.

The best of a fine group of singers here is Shirai (at a guess, Japanese-born, German-trained--Capriccio fails to provide biographical notes), the possessor of a pure, evenly produced voice and flawless enunciation. The excellent pianists are Norman Shetler and Helmut Deutsch.

In another Schumann program, on her own and with another first-rate accompanist, Hartmut Hoell, Shirai sounds--literally--like a different singer.

She is, in fact, billed as a mezzo-soprano here in stiffly sung, blandly declaimed interpretations of the familiar Opus 39 "Liederkreis," best left to the baritone voice for which it was intended. The rarities that complete the program include the pitifully inept settings of five poems attributed to Queen Mary Stuart by a composer on the brink of complete--and final--mental collapse (Capriccio 10 099, CD only).

The ardent baritone of Hakan Hagegard was made to order for Schumann's Opus 39. Unfortunately, the Swedish singer seems out of sorts in his first recorded attempt at the cycle (RCA 5664, CD, with additional Schumann songs). He injects more drama than the music can comfortably accommodate, letting his healthy, handsome voice ring out when half-voice will do, shouting when full-voice is required.

It's an unsettled, unsettling piece of vocalism, accompanied in workmanlike fashion by pianist Thomas Schuback. Compare with the penetrating simplicity of Fischer-Dieskau and Moore on their Orfeo CD devoted to Schumann.

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