In a programme entitled “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen” (“A Young Man Loves a Girl”), the young baritone Tobias Berndt performed a selection of Romantic German Lieder in Freiburg’s Historisches Kaufhaus, culminating in Robert Schumann’s (1810-56) much-loved song cycle Dichterliebe.

Tobias Berndt © Peter B. Kossok
Tobias Berndt
© Peter B. Kossok

Dichterliebe (“The Poet’s Love”) is a setting of Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo (1822-23), the love in question inspiring a wide range of subject matter, from the fluttering whispers of a half-forgotten dream to the brooding enormity of Cologne Cathedral overlooking the Rhine. A certain melancholy pervades the poet’s thoughts, yet this is imaginatively wrapped in the imagery of nature, hidden behind pictures of roses, lilies and nightingales. These thematic elements are reflected in Schumann’s harmonic, rhythmic and melodic approach, resulting in a wonderfully colourful score; dynamic, forthright passages follow moments of subtle delicacy in the blink of an eye.

It was fascinating, then, to hear a wholly different style of Lieder composition in the first half of the concert, in a selection of 17 songs by Robert Franz (1815-92). A contemporary of Schumann and an acquaintance of both Liszt and Wagner, Franz (who composed exclusively for voice and piano) enjoyed great popularity during his lifetime, placed on a similar platform to both Schumann and Schubert.

In direct comparison to Schumann’s chromatic musical language, Franz employs a more traditional use of harmony, influenced by his fascination with the folk-songs of the Middle Ages and his love of modal music written for the church. In short, his rather static, sparse settings rely on a performance sensitive to the finest of nuances – and Berndt, together with pianist Johannes Tolle, certainly didn’t fail to deliver.

Berndt’s first-class technical prowess was made particularly obvious through his impressive dynamic range. The final phrase of “Hör ich das Liedchen klingen” (“I hear the sounds of the song”), was memorable; the protagonists’ “indescribable pain” being left to die on an exquisitely controlled last note, reminiscent of a breath of wind.

Indeed, it was the final few moments of many songs which caught the imagination, the baritone’s spontaneous interpretation always beautifully supported by the sensitive playing of Tolle in an organic combination which never seemed stale or over-rehearsed. The accompanists’ challenge of catching the fine rhythmic phrasing of the soloist is not to be underestimated, but it was a challenge which Tolle rose to throughout the evening in an understated and relaxed manner.

Especially noteworthy was the singer’s continued use of contrasting tone colours with which he painted the poems’ themes and characters. Never content with solely increasing or diminishing the volume of his voice, Berndt dressed the “lonely pine tree” (“Der Fichtenbaum steht einsam”) in shivering snow and ice, and surrounded the palm tree of the same song by a “burning wall of rock”. One couldn’t help but raise a smile at his wickedly comic delivery of the line “Die Stunden sind aber ein faules Volk” (“the hours are a lazy people”), and his portrayal of the “pearls of the sea” and the “stars of the heaven” in “Auf dem Meere” (“On the sea”) had a beautiful innocence about it.

The relative simplicity of Franz’s settings requires an especially good sense of phrasing or “musical line”. The final stanza of “Mädchen mit dem roten Mündchen” (“Girl with the red mouth”) exhibited just this, Berndt’s excellent breath control allowing him to turn four lines into one in a meandering phrase which had time to develop, but never lost impetuous or seemed to sag.

Dichterliebe provides the pianist with a number of extended introductions and codas, and Schumann’s melodic approach to composing for the accompanying instrument seems to give the impression of two equal roles, much in the style of an instrumental sonata. Tolle provided the audience with some beautiful moments in the more lyrical songs, the gentle closing chords of “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh” (“When I look into your eyes”) and the yearning motif which opens “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (“In the fair month of May”) just two of many examples.

The more sprightly, dancing accompaniments (“Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube”, or “The rose, the lily, the dove”) seemed to get rather lost in the generous acoustic of the Kaisersaal, and the imposing opening chords of “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome” (“In the Rhine, the holy river”), which conjure up a dramatic image of Cologne Cathedral, could perhaps have been a little more square and solid.

Tolle’s interpretation of the virtuosic “Ich grolle nicht” (“I bear no grudge”) was excellent, exhibiting a shrewd sense of balance between the repeated accompanying chords in the right hand, and the chiming, resonant bells in the left. The thrilling climax gave Berndt the opportunity to show off his terrific high register, and the fashion in which his voice melted away in the burnt-out exhaustion of the phrase that followed held one spellbound.

The warm reception with which the two were greeted at the conclusion of the concert was just reward for a fine performance.