Often described as the very incarnation of Romanticism,
Robert Schumann created some of the most enduring works in all
music. Born in the Saxon town of Zwickau he was sent to university
to study law but soon turned his back on it when the drive to
compose proved irresistible. Studying piano under Friedrich Wieck,
whose daughter Clara was already something of a piano prodigy,
he had by the age of 30 composed such pieces of staggering originality
as Kinderszenen, Fantasiestücke, Carnaval and Kreisleriana.
In 1840, shortly before his marriage to Clara, an event her father
did everything he could to frustrate, he composed some of the
most astonishing song cycles ever written, including Dichterliebe,
Frauenliebe und Leben and several others on this 4 CD box set.
Though highly thought of during his lifetime he nevertheless failed
to enjoy the kind of success warranted by his prodigious talent.
It is a tragedy that his undoubted love for Clara that was manifested
in so many wonderful songs, was marred by his jealousy of Clara’s
international pianistic success, following his own dashed hopes
of a career as a virtuoso, caused by the loss of control over
his fingers. This jealousy resulted in the souring of a loving
relationship that produced eight children, and this together with
a general mental decline led him to attempt suicide in 1854, and
his life ended in an asylum where he spent his final two years,
dying there in 1856.
Dichterliebe (A poet’s love) is a cycle of sixteen
songs taken from poems by Heinrich Heine and was composed in the
dazzlingly short time of 9 days (24 May-1 June 1840). The story
of two lovers’ first pangs of love, their estrangement and eventual
reunion, no doubt had an autobiographical significance for Robert
and Clara, and the poems were cleverly chosen to highlight the
peaks and troughs of the relationship within the cycle.
The first song "Im wunderschönen Monat
Mai" (In the marvellous month of May) must surely be one
of the most well-known songs ever written, and sets the scene
for the cycle:
"In the marvellous month of May
when all the birds were singing,
then did I reveal to her
my yearning and longing"
In the first six songs the glory and uniqueness
of human love is expressed in a way all of us can identify with,
but then comes "Ich grolle nicht" (I do not complain),
and we understand that the woman’s love for the poet is over and
appreciate the utter wretchedness he feels. The words of the ensuing
songs are so poignant:
"If only the flowers, little as
could know how deeply wounded is my heart,
they would weep with me to heal my sorrow"
My reference for Dichterliebe is a Classikon
disc with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christoph Eschenbach. Listening
to them both I find pluses and minuses in each version. My first
impression was that the tenor voice of Peter Schreier is more
telling than Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone, particularly in the first
passionate declarations of love. Though Schreier is somewhat "breathy"
at times he has a younger sounding voice that seems more in keeping
with the poet in the songs. In each case it was easy to locate
then follow the text though I know no German, but Schreier has
the edge on enunciation, every word clear and precise. However,
his problems with pitch appear with "Ich grolle nicht"
the first dark song of the cycle which taxes his range, requiring,
as it does, an altogether darker sound. He struggles to give it
that colour with the low registers almost beyond his capacity.
For the rest, though, he was the more convincing with superb renditions
of "Hor’ ich das Liedchen klingen" (When I hear the
sound of the song) (track 10) and "Am leutenden sommermorgen"
(On a gleaming morning in summer) (track 11) when his particularly
delicate and hushed tones perfectly underline the heartbreak the
poet feels. Fischer-Dieskau, on the other hand, doesn’t impart
the same feeling at all, but is rather declamatory, and in "Ein
jungling liebt ein madchen" (A lad loves a girl) (track 11)
he appears almost merry and far too upbeat for someone singing
of such bruised emotions.
There are some wonderful moments in both discs
and if one didn’t appreciate the meanings behind the words it
might only be a question of preference between a tenor and baritone
voice. As it is I really felt that Peter Schreier has a better
ability to impart the poet’s feelings of joy at the first feelings
of love as well as those of desolation and regret for lost love.
In Liederkreis (Op.24) Peter Schreier’s voice
is just right and the clarity of enunciation and the perfect control
he exerts over these lovely songs makes them a joy to listen to.
I particularly enjoyed track 21 "Schöne wiege meinen
In the other major song cycle in this set, Frauenliebe
und Leben (A woman’s love and life) Schumann set the words of
Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838), telling of a woman’s love for
a man from the first moment she saw him until his death. As this
seems to have happened in a relatively short time once again a
younger sounding voice works best for me but I have learnt this
is so only through doing this review. The result of this is that
my recording of Brigitte Fassbaender with Irwin Gage has been
well and truly usurped by Felicity Lott with Graham Johnson. Fassbaender’s
rich mezzo is simply too mature in timbre compared to Felicity
Lott’s soaring soprano and sounds too matronly and far removed
from the young girl, young bride, young mother and young widow
of the cycle. I don’t want to decry Fassbaender’s singing which
is excellent, as one would expect, but it just doesn’t suit these
songs, for seven out of eight are joyous declarations of young
love. Fassbaender sounds not only too old to be singing these
words, but too operatic in her delivery. These songs need a light,
deft touch, not a Brünnhilde with might behind her. This
feeling also colours my reaction to the remaining songs on this
disc as Felicity Lott’s voice is, I feel, much more suited to
lieder than Brigitte Fassbaender, whose powerful voice is heard
to its best advantage on the operatic stage as countless other
CDs bear witness.
The third singer in this set is the soprano Mitsuko
Shirai, accompanied by Hartmut Holl, in a selection from Myrthen
(Op.25) as well as six songs on poems by Lenau and Requiem (Op.90)
plus eight more songs. Myrthen begins with Widmung, with words
by Ruckert, a song that always gives me a frisson of excitement
and is followed by Der Nussbaum (words by Mosen), a truly delicious
song. As far as I can tell Mitsuko Shirai has mastered the tricky
pronunciation of the German which, I suspect is no mean feat for
a Japanese. She has a deep voice for a soprano which suits some
of the songs better than others and I often found myself wishing
I was still listening to Felicity Lott. In fact I tired of Shirai’s
voice long before the disc was over.
With so many of the songs in the four disc set
composed in 1840 it is no wonder that year became known as Schumann’s
‘year of song’ and motivated, there is no doubt, by his impending
marriage to Clara Wieck.
All the songs on all four discs, including the
Shirai disc, are sung with a deep understanding and appreciation
for the meaning in the texts and with much colouration. The whole
listening experience was very enjoyable, apart from the Shirai
disc, and has taught me a lot about the singing of lieder.
I don’t want to end without paying tribute to
the accompanists (or pianists as I understand they prefer to be
known – I should think so too!) Norman Shetler, Graham Johnson
and Hartmut Holl are all class acts in their own right and serve
their singers wonderfully well. I recently heard an "accompanying
pianist" say that to be successful in this role meant knowing
instinctively what the singer was going to do before they did
it. These four discs show plenty of examples of what he meant.
It goes without saying that Schumann’s glorious music makes the
whole enterprise easier. I love the way in which in many of the
songs, after the singer had sung their final note, Schumann continues
with the piano part for several bars, not in the manner of a postscript,
but as a perfect rounding off. It was a particularly poignant
moment in Frauenliebe und Leben, when, following the last words
of the woman’s final song telling of her beloved’s death:
"I withdraw quietly into myself;
the veil falls;
there I have you and my lost happiness
you, my whole world!"
Schumann reintroduces the theme from the first
song in which she tells of the first wondrous meeting with him
and how that moment eclipsed everything else around her – powerful,
This set is brought out under various licence
agreements by Brilliant Classics and at the bargain price (4 CDs
for less than the cost of a fullprice disc) brilliant it certainly
is. One gripe though – no English translations (those quoted are
from my Classikon disc), and no words of introduction, explanation
or background. If a company can buy the licences to produce the
discs why can’t they buy the rights to reprint the inserts or
write their own?