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Reine de cœur
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (soprano)
Juliane Ruf (piano)
rec. 2018, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Full sung texts with English translations in booklet
PENTATONE PTC5186810 [66:24]

Reine de cœur (Queen of Hearts) is German soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller’s first release on Pentatone: an album of songs by Schumann, Poulenc and Zemlinsky. She has devised a programme of her personal favourite German Lieder and French mélodies that, as she explains, is based “around love and life, around the heights and depths of the human soul!” Although she mentions love and life in her short introductory note, “Love and Loss” appear in the publicity material. In essence, Müller explores how one German, one Austrian and one French composer treat similar subjects.

It might be helpful to provide a short biographical note about Müller. Her name is relatively new name to me but she is undertaking a busy singing career on the international stage. A student of Rudolf Piernay at Mannheim University of Music and Performing Arts, the soprano participated in a number of masterclasses, notably with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady, Edith Wiens, Wolfram Rieger, Elly Ameling and Thomas Hampson. She concentrates principally on German repertoire. Her opera career is going from strength to strength. She sang conspicuously in productions of Beethoven (Marzelline), Mozart (Suzanna, Donna Anna, Palmina, Illia, Sandrina) and Richard Strauss (Sophie, Zdenka). This February,she will return to the New York Met to sing Susanna, and in summer she will again sing Eva in David Bösch’s Die Meistersinger at the National Theater, Munich. Müller pursues an active recital career. In 2017, she and her piano partner Juliane Ruf released a debut recital CD on Belvedere: Traumgekrönt (Crowned with Dreams), songs by Richard Strauss, Berg and Schoenberg.

Schumann was undoubtedly one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. His cycle Six Songs for voice and piano, Op. 107 opens the album. Written in 1851-1852, the cycle is a product of his time in Düsseldorf as municipal director of music. Schumann uses texts by five different poets, including two by Titus Ullrich (1813-1891). Unrequited love is the theme of the poems. Müller conveys it with a strong sense of melancholy and world weariness. Especially enjoyable is Im Wald (In the forest) to Königswinter’s poem. Müller uses a nature text to comfortably communicate the pain of separation from a loved one.

Poulenc, a Parisian, was a prolific composer in the field of the mélodie or art-song – he wrote over 140 such pieces. Here he is represented by the cycle La courte paille (The Short Straw) on poems by Maurice Carême; it is a late work from 1960, and his last song collection. The cycle is concerned with the theme of childhood but it is unclear if this is seen from the viewpoint of a child or an adult. Poulenc stated that the songs were “melancholic or naughty sketches, without pretensions”. Standing out for me is the title track of the album, La reine de cœur (Queen of Hearts). Müller conveys with a soothing quality where the Queen of Hearts can lead you. I also enjoyed the two very short mélodies, Quelle aventure! and Ba, be, bi, bo, bu, both sung with cheerful vivacity.

Next comes Zemlinsky’s song cycle, Walzergesänge (Waltz songs), Op. 6, after Tuscan poems by Ferdinand Gregorovius. In the Vienna-born composer’s cycle from 1898, the spirit of Brahms’s Liebeslieder waltzes is never far away. Especially well performed, although the darkest, Lied of the set of six is Ich geh' des Nachts (I walk at night). One senses that Müller is completely inside the meaning of the often-haunting text as the subject searches forlornly for her sweetheart.

Next, there is Poulenc’s another cycle, Fiançailles pour rire (Whimsical Betrothal). These six mélodies from 1939 settings of Louise de Vilmorin’s text deal with the aspects of love. They were introduced at Paris in 1943 during the ominous days of the city’s occupation by the Germans. Poulenc described the cycle’s atmosphere “of nervousness, of sensuality, of disappointment and of melancholy”. My particular favourite is Dans l'herbe (In the grass), in which Müller pertinently communicates the heroine’s feeling of helplessness as her lover dies alone.

To close the album, we return to Schumann with his Lenau cycle of Six Songs and the setting of Requiem to make a seventh. The 1850 cycle is Schumann’s final work written in the Saxon city of Dresden before his move to Düsseldorf. The final song Requiem stands out: Müller expresses how the stars shine bright for those departed from this life for heaven.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller sings well all along, and it is no surprise that her career is flourishing. One senses that recording the album was a labour of love. Genuine care was taken over selecting the texts of “Love and Loss”. Committed, highly expressive and generally well controlled, Müller has no problem with her middle and high register, which she can deliver with significant weight. Her steadiness occasionally wavers, and she seems slightly less comfortable in her low range, especially at low volume. Accompanying Müller is her regular recital partner, the pianist Juliane Ruf, who turns in an effective performance, although I would have wanted additional tonal shading in Poulenc’s mélodies.

The Pentatone sound engineers deliver clarity and satisfying balance. In the booklet, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller provides a short foreword, and James Parsons’s essay is informative and interesting to read. I greatly appreciate the full sung texts with English translations provided in the booklet. Full marks to Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Juliane Ruf for this thoroughly enjoyable recital album.

Michael Cookson
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Sechs Gesänge, für eine Singstimme mit Begleitung des pianoforte
(Six Songs for voice and piano), Op. 107 (1851-52) [11.52]
1) I. Herzeleid [2.02]
2) II. Die Fensterscheibe [2.08]
3) III. Der Gärtner [1.23]
4) IV. Die Spinnerin [1.23]
5) V. Im Wald [2.40]
6) VI. Abendlied [2.11]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
La courte paille (The Short Straw), FP 178 (1960) [12.32]
7) I. Le sommeil [2.31]
8) II. Quelle aventure! [0.59]
9) III. La reine de cœur [2.09]
10) IV. Ba, be, bi, bo, bu [0.34]
11) V. Les anges musiciens [1.56]
12) VI. Le carafon [1.12]
13) VII. Lune d'avril [3.08]
Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Walzergesänge nach toskanischen Liedern von Ferdinand Gregorovius
(Waltz songs after Tuscan songs by Ferdinand Gregorovius), Op. 6 (1898) [7.57]
14) Liebe Schwalbe [1.37]
15) Klagen ist der Mond gekommen [1.28]
16) Fensterlein, nachts bist du zu [1.04]
17) Ich geh' des Nachts [0.54]
18) Blaues Sternlein [1.49]
19) Briefchen schrieb ich [1.03]
Fiançailles pour rire (Whimsical Betrothal), FP 101 (1939) [15.30]
20) La Dame d'André [1.38]
21) Dans l'herbe [2.56]
22) Il vole [1.56]
23) Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant [3.54]
24) Violon [2.04]
25) Fleurs [3.01]
Sechs Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem [18.30]
(Six Songs by N. Lenau and Requiem), (1850)
26) Lied eines Schmiedes [1.23]
27) Meine Rose [3.54]
28) Kommen und Scheiden [1.30]
29) Die Sennin [1.50]
30) Einsamkeit [3.09]
31) Der schwere Abend [2.06]
32) Requiem [4.35]

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