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Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)
Spanisches Liederspiele op.74 (excerpts) [6.50]
Drei Gedichte op. 29 [8.19]
Fünf Lieder op. 55 [14.58]
Vier doppelchörige Gesänge op. 141 [16.56]
Vier Gesänge op. 59 [14.12]
Bei Schenkun eines Flugels [2.25]
Beim Abschied zu singen, op. 84 [4.16]
Konrad Elser (piano)
Orpheus Vokalensemble/Gary Graden
rec. Biblothekssall Ochesenhausen and Bibliothekssal Bad Schuessnried 21-24 May 2006
CARUS 83.173 [68.47]

Schumann wrote quite a body of choral music and Carus have now issued the first volume in a proposed survey of the secular part of this genre. On this disc the Orpheus Vokalensemble sing an attractive selection of the part-songs.
The Orpheus Vokalensemble is a professional choir, formed in 2005 at the Landesmusikakademie, Baden-Württemberg. The group numbers some two dozen singers of various nationalities. Their name was inspired by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. This is their first disc.
During his ‘year of song’, 1840, Schumann wrote not only lieder but also choral pieces. These tend to be effectively lieder for choir, song-like in their construction and melodic fluency. Following this period, Schumann concentrated on instrumental writing, returning to choral music later in the 1840s. It is in this latter period that Schumann started to explore the polyphonic, instrumental possibilities that a choir could give him. This disc covers the whole range of Schumann’s choral output from this period.
The earliest pieces on the disc are the Drei Gedichte, Op. 29, setting words by Emanuel Giebel and written originally for solo voices or small ensemble. The first, Ländliches Lied, is a lively folk-like song for soprano duet; the second, Lied In meinem Garten die Nelken is a sad, slow lyrical soprano trio. The best known piece is the third, the lively, dance-like Zigeuner Leben, which uses mixed voices. The choir sing these pieces with charm and delicacy, never forgetting their chamber origins.
The Vier Gesänge, Op. 59, date from later in the 1840s. These are all song-like, developed choral lieder with little in the way of polyphonic development. Schumann’s setting of Nord oder Sud (poetry: Karl Lappe) is rather strophic in feel and in the earlier parts I would have liked more differentiation between the individual verses. Am Bodensee (poetry: Karl August von Platen) is a lively piece which is also strophic in feel but with the poetic surprise of a slow final strophe as the poet considers his love who has gone before him.
As might be expected, Jagerlied is a lively setting of a poem by Mörike to which Schumann gives a nice throwaway ending. The group’s final song is a lovely lyrical setting of Rückert’s Gute Nacht, with a fine solo line. But Schumann added an appendix to the group, Hirtenknaben-Gesang which is sets as an unaccompanied folk-song, presented initially in octaves and then developed in canon.
The Fünf Lieder, Op. 55 were almost written as companions to the Op. 59 set. But in this group, Schumann set translations of poems by Robert Burns. He gave his settings a folk-like character, assuming that Burns had originally been inspired by folk music.
Das Hochlandmädchen (The Highland Lass) was intended to sound like an “artless country song”, though in fact it has a rather more serious atmosphere about it. At one point Schumann uses a drone in the basses to hint at bagpipes. Zahnweh (Toothache) is more dramatic; it is written to be sung with humour. Schumann makes strong use of unisons for dramatic contrast and the melody is marked by wide intervals.
Mich zieht es nach dem Dörfchen (I am drawn to the little village) is a melancholy, evocative song. Die alte gute Zeit (The Good Old Days) uses the alternation between soli and chorus to give a very effective refrain; the strict four-part writing creating a rather old fashioned effect. Hochland barsch (Highland laddie) gives a lively finale, again using a call and refrain effect.
Vier doppelchörige Gesänge, op. 141, were written in a short space of time in October 1849. The texts Schumann used, though secular, are full of religious imagery and Schumann reinforces this by writing for the double choir using polychoral techniques. Only rarely do the two choirs function as two distinct ensembles.
These pieces are the most developed on the disc and are a tribute to Schumann’s genius. The atmosphere of the songs takes on a darker timbre. An die Sterne (words: Friedrich Rückert) moves from its magical opening to a mysterious, almost mystical world. The choir responds with a lovely clarity of choral tone. In Ungewisses Licht Schumann uses an angular melody to achieve word-painting effects, depicting the wanderer without a certain path. Here, though the choir sings the music beautifully, I felt the tone could have been more dramatic and darker and the final verse, when the wanderer rushes towards the light, lacks urgency.
Zuversicht (words: Joseph Christian von Zedlitz) is a highly effective melodic song with some rather hypnotic repetitions towards the end. The choir sings it with lovely choral control. The singers give Goethe’s Talismane a confident, bright choral tone but this continues into the final verse which I think should be far darker and more intense.
Beim Abschied zu singen is a lovely farewell piece, written originally in 1847 for the Zwickau Schumann Festival. Es is verraten and Ich bin geliebet come from Schumann’s 1849 Spanisches Liederspiel, a collection of solo songs, duets and quartets. Even during Schumann’s lifetime choruses sang these two quartets. They are both catchy, dance-like pieces and attractively melodic.
One of Schumann’s last compositions was a serenade written at the end of August 1853 for Clara's birthday on 13 September. He set words which he had written in 1840 as a dedicatory poem accompanying the gift, to Clara, of a grand piano. In 1853 he gave her another grand piano and arrange to have his setting of the poem sung by a group of four singers. Bei Schenkung eines Flugels is a lovely serenade with not a little feel of one of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer.
The Orpheus Vokalensemble are a young group with a light, bright choral tone. Under Gary Graden’s direction they sing these pieces with good diction, well moulded phrases, good ensemble and cohesiveness. Only occasionally do I wish that we had some rather darker tones and greater intensity of passion.
This disc makes a highly attractive introduction to Schumann’s choral music and in the Vier doppelchörige Gesänge contains a fine performance of one of Schumann’s greatest choral pieces.
Robert Hugill


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