Now let’s face it, chaps, you’ve been mollycoddled far too long.
Think of all those great big Hyperion editions of lieder, mélodie and
song which are gradually covering practically every composer
who wrote a song worth hearing. Get those and you’re getting,
not just a CD and a list of titles, you get opus numbers,
texts, translations, the names of the poets, dates, and a
mammoth essay by Graham Johnson (or Roger Vignoles or somebody
equally expert) giving you practically the sum of present-day
human knowledge about each song. Even dirt cheap Naxos, though
they’ve taken to sending you to their website for the words,
still give you plentiful documentation and a detailed essay.
It takes away all the fun of hunting the facts up for yourself.
Well, if you do agree with that, here’s the set for you. Faithful,
perhaps, to the Spartan ideals of the erstwhile German Democratic
Republic in which it was made, it’s the musical equivalent
of a children’s summer camp. You get four discs containing
about half Schumann’s song output – practically all those
suited to a tenor. You get titles, you get most of the opus
numbers, you get texts in German – well, that’s better than
nothing – and Bob’s your-uncle.
So this is where you have to team up and do projects. On
Disc 1, for example, at the end of “Liederkreis”, there are
six songs without any opus numbers given. You could begin
those up. Oh dammit, I’ve already done that for you, in the
header … oh, I could kill myself. Then you could look for
translations, you could look up the dates, you could find
out who the poets were – unless they’re actually in Schumann’s
title … Berlin Classics don’t let on. You could try to puzzle
out why the programmes have been put together the way they
have. You could even try to answer the riddle of why just
under half the “Myrthen” cycle op.25 is presented higgledy-piggledy
over two discs. I’m telling you the cycle’s called “Myrthen”,
by the way, they aren’t. For texts, poets, translations
and dates, incidentally, your first port of call is likely
to be Emily Ezust’s wonderful lieder
The question of who the poets were would be important in
any case, but if I’ve understood anything, they are actually
the basis behind the way the programmes are chosen. CD 1,
is entirely dedicated to Heine. That’s what three
of the “Myrthen” songs are doing here – it’s a composite
cycle, setting a number of poets. So your next project might
be to work out what struck Schumann particularly about Heine,
leading to “Dichterliebe”, generally acknowledged as his
greatest cycle. But he didn’t only choose lovelorn lyrics
about the “wonderful month of May” and the “Lotus bloom” – the
range extends to the bizarre mini-cycle about “Poor Peter”.
In Hyperion’s Volume 5 Graham Johnson draws a chilling parallel
between Poor Peter’s madness and Schumann’s fears at the
time – ultimately justified – about his own growing insanity.
Just to give you an idea of the wealth of material available,
by the way, that Hyperion disc, beautifully sung by Christopher
Maltman, is also dedicated to Heine settings and the programmes
are by no means parallel.
CD2 begins with the more famous of the two cycles entitled “Liederkreis” and
here the poet is named in Schumann’s title – Joseph von Eichendorff.
This is a name that crops up again and again in the lieder
repertoire. A website tells me that no poet has been more
frequently set to music on account of his lyric, almost folk-like
simplicity. A singer of spring and nightingales and “Waldeinsamkeit”,
he inspired Schumann’s most warmly romantic cycle. Eichendorff
also frames the selection of seven songs which follows – his
poems appear in the first and in the last two. In between
are various poets, including Reinick whom we also meet in
Brahms. I suppose the idea is to show that they all belong
to the same school.
The short Geibel set is followed by another five settings
of the same poet. Here the mood is quite different – I get the idea that
these very decently-filled CDs may be grouping together a
larger number of tightly-programmed if ungenerous LPs. Geibel,
at least in this selection, is concerned with picturesque
characters and strong colour. Four of the pieces are based
on Spanish poems and the three op. 138 songs are from Schumann’s “Spanische
Liebeslieder”. I suppose “character” and “colour” are also
the justification for rounding off the disc with two Gypsy
songs from Schumann’s “Lieder-Album für die Jugend”.
CD 3 apparently lets the cat out of the bag by telling you
it contains “Lieder
nach Rückert und Goethe”. This, however, is just a trap set
for the unwary. First of all, apart from the three op.37
settings which have Rückert’s name in the title, we’re not
actually told which poet wrote which poem. And when you do
follow this up, you’ll find that more than half the songs
are not settings of either of them …
I had never particularly associated Rückert with Goethe, not that
I’m anything of an expert on German poetry. Schumann seems
to find them quite different too, adopting an intimate, gentle
tone for Rückert and a more grandly assertive one for Goethe.
Of the other poets, we get a full set – op. 40 – from Chamisso, well
known as the author of the poems for Schumann’s great female-voice
cycle “Frauenliebe und Leben”. Here, however, he is providing
German versions of poems by Hans Christian Andersen which,
at least as set by Schumann, are far removed from the fairy-tale
world by which we normally know him. You might guess the
grim “Der Soldat” was by Mahler. Also included on this disc
is a poem by Byron and two Venetian songs by Thomas Moore – set
in German translations of course.
CD 4 is a very serious affair. The Kerner set is a bleak,
austere piece of work, more so at times than the poems seem
It reaches its climax with “Stille Tränen”, a song of quite
extraordinary intensity. Elsewhere I often felt the need
for some helpful guidance, Graham Johnson-style, as to what
Schumann was trying to do. Is it a question of familiarity?
I asked myself, if I had known op. 35 all my life and was
coming new to “Dichterliebe”, would my reactions be the other
way round? I think not; this really does seem one of the
hardest Schumannesque nuts to crack.
Op. 35 is followed by three further songs, of which the first
again has a text by Kerner. “Sängers Trost” immediately gives the
lie to the generalization that higher opus numbers in Schumann
are likely to contain less inspired music than lower ones.
So, too, does the Lenau cycle which concludes the disc. Though
all the songs are slow and introspective, it has a poetic
glow which op. 35 seems deliberately to be avoiding. The
second song, “Meine Rose”, is an epitome of all we love most
in Schumann and it is surprising it is not excerpted more
But what about the performances? I suppose a kinder-hearted
critic might have started here, for they’re just about perfect.
All the more reason to be seriously concerned that the sparse
documentation might limit their circulation to specialists.
In the early 1970s Peter Schreier’s career was completing its first
decade. His artistry was in its first maturity, his vocal
equipment still retained its wondrous youthful sheen. There
is not a note here which is not inherently beautiful, except
perhaps in op. 35 where a whisker of huskiness seems intentional.
He can sail up to an unstrained high B flat and is one of
the few who can take the higher alternatives in “Ich grolle
nicht” without making you wish he hadn’t. It is not a “big” voice
and he has never claimed it to be so. But “bigness” is relative
to what is around it and in this context he achieves high
drama when necessary while at the other end of the scale
he can fine down to an almost whispered, honeyed pianissimo.
He rises to passionate heights at the climax of “Stille Tränen”.
Every word is beautifully weighted in the context of the
phrase. It might be called non-interventionist singing which
nevertheless intervenes enough to characterize the music.
Everything here is deeply considered, from the well-known “Dichterliebe” to
the rarer songs. And Norman Shetler is always supportive
and present without ever hogging the stage. Many of these
songs were new to me, but as each one started the tempo taken
and the mood created always sounded exactly right.
You will be thinking, might there be just a hint in all this of a
laid-back, academic manner? Is it all too perfect?
Well, when Peter Schreier took up conducting the results
sometimes seemed more safe than exciting, but as a singer,
at any rate at this stage in his career, he always communicates
spontaneity and involvement, however much hard work may have
gone into it. There are too many fine “Dichterliebe” performances
around to claim first place for any of them but this matches
any on my shelves and I can’t imagine a better guide to the
less well-known songs.
And what about Schumann himself? Well, in one sense the feeling
is confirmed that, if you don’t know any Schumann lieder, the
essential works are “Frauenliebe und Leben” – not here for
obvious reasons – and “Dichterliebe”, with the second “Liederkreis” cycle
not far behind. On the other hand, Schumann’s range is shown
to be wider than one supposed, even though he always remains
true to his unmistakeable melodic and harmonic style. While
a few of the later songs suggest tiring inspiration there
are also many, many beautiful surprises to be found among
The voice is excellently recorded throughout. The piano hasn’t quite
the bloom and resonance of more recent recordings but I barely
noticed this. I’ve said that you get just titles and words
in the booklet, but there’s one thing more: a curious inversion
of roles gives us a 1993 essay by Gerard Felber on “Peter
Schreier as a lieder singer”. I agree with every fulsome
word he says. But I thought it was my job to say these
things. His job – or somebody’s at Berlin Classics – was
to give you all the information I’ve put at the beginning
of this review.
So there you are. If you’re willing to do all the necessary spade-work
you’ll find your Schumann holiday camp endlessly rewarding.
You couldn’t expect a better guide than Big-Chief Schreier.
But don’t stint on your projects, that’s all.
Dichterliebe op.48 [31:29]
Liederkreis op.24 [21:56]
Myrthen op.25: 7. Die Lotosblume [1:41], 21. Was will die einsame Träne [1:53],
24. Du bist wie eine Blume [1:44]
Dein Angesicht, so lieb und schön op.127/2 [2:17]
Lehn deine Wang’ an meine Wang’ op.142/2 [0:49]
Mein Wagen rollet langsam, op.142/4 [2:47]
Der arme Peter op.53/3 [4:18]
Liederkreis op.39 [26:27]
Frühlingsfahrt op.45/2 [03:07]
Ständchen op.36/2 [01:29]
Nur ein lächelnder Blick op.27/5 [02:30]
An den Sonnenschein op.36/4 [01:30]
Ich wand’re nicht op.51/3
Der frohe Wandersmann op.77/1 [02:02]
Der Einsiedler op.83/3 [03:04]
Drei Gedichte von Emanuel G