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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Dichterliebe, Op.48 (1840) [31:27]
Liederkreis, Op.24 (1840) [21:56]
Peter Schreier: Tenor
Norman Shetler: Piano
Recorded in 1972, 1974, Studio Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany
Liederkreis, Op.39 (1842) [26:17]
Frauenliebe und leben, Op.42 (1840) [22:21]
Aus den Ostlichen Rosen, Op.25, No.25 (1840) [1:50]
Die Soldatenbraut, Op.64, No.1 (1841) [2:13]
Mignon, Op.98a [4:25]
Felicity Lott: Soprano
Graham Johnson: Piano
Recorded at St.Paul’s, New Southgate, UK (no date given)
12 Gedichte von Justinus Kerner, Op.35 (1840) [32:59]
5 Lieder, Op.40 (1840) [10:38]
Peter Schreier: Tenor
Norman Shetler: Piano
Recorded in 1972, 1973, Studio Lukaskirche, Dresden, Germany
Myrthen, Op.25 (selection) (1840) [21:51]
6 Gedichte von Lenau und Requiem, Op.90 [13:46]
Ausgewahlte Lieder (8 songs composed at various dates) [19:19]
Mitsuko Shirai: Soprano
Hartmut Holl: Piano
Recorded in 1992, Tonstudio van Geest, Heidelburg, Germany
CDs 1 and 3 licensed from Edel Classics GMBH, Germany
CD2 licensed from Mark Brown Music Productions, UK
CD4 licensed from Capriccio/Delta Music Productions, UK

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 they are,

could know how deeply wounded is my heart,

they would weep with me to heal my sorrow" (track 8)

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 Lieden"

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, marvellous stuff!

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?

Steve Arloff


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