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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Myrthen, Op.25
Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Gerold Huber (piano)
rec. 2017-2019, Studio 2, Bayerischen Rundfunks, Munich, Germany.
SONY 19075945362 [49:00]

Myrthen (or Myrten) are myrtles, the German symbol of marriage, and this cycle was composed in 1840 as a wedding present for Schumann’s fiancé Clara Wieck. Eric Sams asks, in his book The Songs of Robert Schumann, “what bride ever had a finer wedding gift?” Not that the composition is completely even in quality, being a sort of anthology of texts from nine poets representing the various sides of Schumann’s complex character as well the vicissitudes of his early relationship with Clara and her father. Hence the organising principle is one of variety rather than similarity. It is often taken as a publication from which to choose individual songs in the way singers would not with other Schumann cycles. But the complete work has its own coherence, and there are several gems.

It opens with one of the greatest songs ever written by anyone, Widmung or “Dedication” in which Rückert’s poem is used to dedicate the volume to its recipient, as well as to reflect the personal dedication the composer is offering to his beloved. It is surprising then to hear it sung by a female voice, for the singing of the cycle is shared between Gerhaher and Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling, who is allotted twelve of the twenty-five songs. She sings it with sensitivity and has good rapport with Gerold Huber – this really is a song for voice and piano. But it seems odd that in his own Schumann series, Gerhaher will not be heard in one of the greatest of all Schumann’s songs.

Widmung apart, Tilling’s allocation of songs are those where the text implies we are being addressed by a female, and the alternation of the male and female voice works well in a cycle which is fifty minutes long. Her soprano is bright and silvery in sound, light on vibrato and lighter in tonal weight than some, but this all helps when the text suggests we are being addressed by a very young woman. Thus in the lovely and celebrated Der Nussbaum (The Nut Tree) when a young girl dreams of her forthcoming marriage, the intimacy and delicacy of her singing are near ideal. So too with Suleika’s Song and the Lied der Braut I and Lied der Braut 2 of Rückert. In the first of those Bride’s Songs she is superb, taking the high A of the peroration in her stride, and Huber’s postlude (a long one for a short song) is no less affecting. Tilling is not a singer who does a lot with the music, preferring to sing with a good line and tone, and not adding too much in the way of expressive touches. Others do more with lieder of course, but her approach suits this material particularly well.

Gerhaher is of course an expert in this repertoire – I treasure a couple of Schumann discs he released on the RCA label back in 2004 and 2008. The voice is still in very good condition, as you can hear in one of the best and most demanding songs, Aus den hebräischen Gesängen (From Hebrew Melodies) based on Byron’s poem “My soul is dark”. The song calls on the lowest register at one point, where the baritone is firm and true, while his inwardness and poised legato reveal the essence of the song, its world weariness. He can also respond to more bluff and straightforward sentiments, with sturdy, robust singing in Niemand (Nobody) and Hochländers Abschied (Highlander’s Farewell). In the short homogeneous sequence of the final three songs, after what must be said seems quite a lot of the folk-like and lighter items, we are reminded of how great a lieder composer Schumann was, beginning with Du bist wie eine Blume (You are like a flower), one of Schumann’s finest, and continuing with Aus den östlichen Rosen (From ‘Eastern Roses’) and Zum Schluss (At the last). Gerhaher exhibits an exquisite way with these songs, controlling his tone colour with immaculate skill, and drawing the listener in. They make a memorable close to an outstanding disc.

Myrthen has not had that many complete recordings. Fischer-Dieskau and Christoph Eschenbach in their big Schumann survey (DGG 1975) recorded only a selection from Myrthen, choosing eighteen of the twenty-five songs. Contralto Nathalie Stutzmann has recorded a complete cycle, but the proper comparison to this new version is with Volume 5 of the Hyperion Schumann series (2002), as that is similarly shared between a male and female singer, the young and fresh-voiced Ian Bostridge and Dorothea Röschmann, with pianist Graham Johnson. The ardour of Bostridge’s tenor makes the most of the opening Widmung - much of this cycle is young man’s music and he sounds right for it, and sings very well throughout. Aside from Widmung Röschmann sings most of the same songs as Tilling, and brings a little more to them. And of course you have Johnson’s incomparable notes – well, really a 100-page comprehensive study covering each poem, poet and song in a way so revealing that it changes how you hear them. You also get more music, as the same singers also give us two sets of Four Duets, Op.34 and Op.78. For these reasons that remains for me the top recommendation, if only just.

But this disc has already won much well-deserved praise, and I recommend it highly. Christian Gerhaher is a deeply impressive singer, as fine as any baritone around in this repertoire. He is expertly accompanied as ever by Gerold Huber, and there is clear well-balanced sound, a very interesting booklet note on the cycle by Gerhaher himself, and full texts and translations. Its predecessor in the series (entitled “Frage”) garnered awards, and Sony announce in the booklet a plan to issue all ten discs of this complete Schumann lieder edition from Gerhaher in a box next year (perhaps incorporating those earlier RCA discs mentioned above). With the level of achievement already so high, completists might want to wait for that - but beware the tendency for companies to leave out the texts and translations when boxing up big lieder collections.

Roy Westbrook

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