Lieder, or classical song, used to be a performance art mastered slowly over the years.
Tenor Peter Pears and pianist/composer Benjamin Britten toured together until shortly before Britten's death in 1976, just as French baritone Pierre Bernac performed and recorded nearly exclusively with pianist/composer Francis Poulenc until the latter died in 1963.
Despite pressures on classical musicians from record labels to produce quick results, using a sometimes haphazard mix-and-match technique, there is still a core of superb lieder achievement to be heard today.
EMI recently released the first of a planned series of recordings of songs by Schubert, pairing two of the company's most acclaimed young stars - pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and tenor Ian Bostridge.
Andsnes, like a younger, leaner-sounding version of the legendary Sviatoslav Richter, excels in a sober, lyrical Schubert piano sonata and teams up with the reedy-sounding Bostridge for a touching beginning to their partnership. Whether they will reach the quality of today's finest lieder duos depends on many factors - some of which are complicated, as in any relationship.
"The accompanist has to [allow] the singer to shine," says Dame Felicity Lott, a soprano who performs with pianist Graham Johnson. The two have produced a series of delightful recordings since the 1970s, mostly of French music. "It helps a great deal if the accompanist is also sensitive to the poetry that inspired the song, so that singer and pianist are completely united in what they are trying to put across."
With these characteristics, a partnership can weather the inevitable challenges that arise. Lott adds, "I think it is absolutely possible to have an exciting one-off concert with a new partner, who will bring new ideas. But I always feel as though I have come home when I work with Graham Johnson again!"
While she feels an accompanist shouldn't play too loudly, not surprisingly, at least one pianist feels somewhat differently. "A completely open piano lid does not harm a good balance in any way," says Hartmut Höll, who has recorded with his mezzo-soprano wife, Mitsuko Shirai, since the 1970s, and partnered baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. "What can harm a performance is too much pressure and pianistic attack, instead of the voice and piano in a perfect balance, carrying the sound mutually."
Mr. Höll is also a fan of slow, lengthy mutual development in lieder performance. "A partnership of many years creates a marvelous community in musical thinking, with the consciousness of reciprocal possibilities and temperaments," he says. "That way, concerts can seem splendidly improvised, using knowledge gained after many years."
Montreal-born pianist Shelley Katz, now based in England, has made a series of recordings with countertenor Jochen Kowalski. Katz points out that working together can either get better with age or cause a relationship to go sour. "Certainly, one can also have a fabulous concert with a soloist whom one meets five minutes before walking out on stage," Katz says. But "working together for many years brings a quality of understanding between the artists that cannot usually be matched by new partners."
Time will tell whether Andsnes and Bostridge achieve this kind of synthesis, where, as Höll says, a pianist offers a "kindly and absorbing excitement within security, while musically expressing the words and feelings right for every note."
Schubert: Winterreise Mitsuko Shirai (mezzo-soprano) Hartmut Höll (piano) Capriccio Records Probably today's supreme lieder partnership, a pianist of spiky originality and a singer of deep emotional expression.
Spirit of Love - Schubert Songs Ian Partridge (tenor) Jennifer Partridge (piano) Meridian Records A British brother and sister team of ideal pliancy and musicality.
French Song Edition - Musique adorable! - Chabrier: Songs Felicity Lott (soprano) Graham Johnson (piano) Hyperion \Elegant and amusing renditions of Francophile joys.
Montparnasse - Poulenc: Melodies Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto) Inger Södergren (piano) RCA Victor Red Seal A gifted French vocalist with a longtime keyboard partner.
Mozart and Schumann Lieder Jochen Kowalski (countertenor) Shelley Katz (piano) Capriccio Records An uncanny spiritual sound in Mozart, by an East German countertenor sensitively accompanied.
Brahms, La Belle Maguelonne Christoph Prégardien (tenor) Andreas Staier (piano) Teldec Das Alte Werk An outstanding duo that adheres to the "authentic instrument" ideal.
Schumann: Dichterliebe, Liederkreis Thomas Quasthoff (baritone) Roberto Szidon (piano) RCA Victor Red Seal A resonant singer and virtuoso pianist strike sparks together.