Liedertafel is an engaging exploration of the Romantic male-voice part song -- a genre that was hugely popular during the nineteenth century, but which has been a wallflower in the electronic age. According to the entertaining liner notes by Mattis Dänhardt, the so-called "Liedertafeln" (song tables), gatherings of male singers from which the album takes its name, were much more than casual gatherings of singers: they were exclusive and highly regimented groups dedicated to social and political causes (a few of which, like the suppression of women's rights, and engaging in pro-government propaganda, have left a stain on their reputations). But their ultimate legacy is the diverse repertory of songs they left behind, a rich vein of music that celebrates the spirit of Romanticism and male camaraderie. Some of the best composers of the era wrote part songs for these groups. For this program, four sets of songs by Franz Schubert are complemented by selections from Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and the more obscure Philipp Friedrich Silcher. Although all of the compositions are for four male voices (sometimes with piano), the variety of style is wide: the ruddiness of Schubert's "Widerspruch" (Contradiction); the fleet gemütlichkeit of Mendelssohn's "Sommerlied" (Summer Song); the languid, molasses-sweet harmonies of Schumann's "Die Lotosblume" (The Lotus Flower); and the straightforward narrative of Philipp Silcher's "Loreley" (Lorelei), all represent different approaches to deploying male voices in harmony.
Tenors Christian Elsner and James Taylor, baritone Michael Volle, and bass Franz-Josef Selig make up the quartet for this recording. Their sound is rich and soloistic, but still tight and unified and beautifully in tune. The richness of their singing is an accurate representation of the full-bodied German tradition. The sweetness of Elsner's high tenor, which usually carries the melody, and the rumblings of Selig's deep bass are the cornerstones of the group's sound; both carry it off well, though Elsner could afford to bring out his tunes more prominently at times, and Selig occasionally drifts in pitch on long-held notes. The group as a whole is occasionally lead-footed, getting bogged down on individual syllables so that the music doesn't flow freely. But especially in slower numbers, like Schumann's "Die Lotosblume," they stretch the intricate harmonies like warm taffy, emphasizing every dissonance and relaxation to great effect. Pianist Gerold Huber plays with spirit on those songs with accompaniment.
A gluttonous eight pages of the booklet are devoted to the performers' biographies, and while it's always nice to know who you're listening to, that space could have been put to much better use providing texts and translations for those of us who aren't fluent auf Deutsch. Curious to know why "Der lustigen Doktoren Leibliedlein" is funny? Sorry, you won't find it here.