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The song cycle matures: Schumann's year of inspiration
by Joel Kasow

Lyon, 12 December 1998 Joel Kasow takes the opportunity to examine several recent releases of Schumann lieder to poetry by Heinrich Heine. This is the first of a continuing series that will explore the song repertoire. Details of the recordings are available at the end of the review.

Beethoven invented the song cycle, giving us "An die ferne Geliebte", while Schubert perfected the genre by concentrating on its narrative aspects ("Die schöne Müllerin", "Die Winterreise") and giving us a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been when he tackled the poetry of Heinrich Heine, six glorious songs gathered after the composer's death along with some unrelated material under the catch-all title "Schwanengesang". Schumann's miraculous year of 1840, when he produced over 130 songs scattered among various cycles or collections, is the consolidation of the unified song cycle. Heine's poems offered suitable material for Schumann to express his love for Clara Wieck, finally to become his wife in September 1840 after five years of separation and an ultimate legal battle against Clara's father.

Schumann's song cycles vary enormously, from the linear narrative of "Frauenliebe und -leben" to the mood pieces of the Opus 39 "Liederkreis" (Eichendorff); the two Heine cycles are masterpieces in their own right. The Opus 24 "Liederkreis" takes nine poems of varying lengths, but all expressive of the composer's moods during the difficult engagement period, and ties them thematically, tonally and melodically into a coherent whole. While certain of the songs have gained currency on their own, they function best within the context of the cycle where they are additionally set off by the surrounding music, even truer for the Opus 48 "Dichterliebe" where there is a narrative aspect as well, though not as marked as in the two classic Schubert cycles.

"Dichterliebe" has long been popular on its own, with recordings going back to the 78 rpm era by Aksel Schiøtz, Gerhard Hüsch, Charles Panzera and even Lotte Lehmann (one of the few women to tackle what is generally thought of as a man's cycle), while individual songs achieved a certain popularity, "Ich grolle nicht" for example, where one could be emphatic and show off a high A (or not, depending on the degree of transposition). The Opus 24 set has only recently come into favor as the pressure of the recording industry has made a virtue of completeness, which is a partial explanation of the sudden appearance of the first four sets listed above, following fairly rapidly on the heels of similar albums by Wolfgang Holzmair (Philips) and Thomas Allen (Virgin).

It is Hampson the scholar who has performed a task for which gratitude is forthcoming from all sides. While preparing to perform the "Dichterliebe" (recorded live in Edinburgh in 1993 with the late Geoffrey Parsons and released the following year on EMI 5 55147 2), Hampson searched out the original manuscript in the Berlin Library, and found a longer and different version of the piece under the title given in the headnote above. We have long known the four additional songs published towards the end of the composer's life, and a few courageous singers have even performed the cycle interpolating those songs in their original locations, but now we can hear Schumann's first version where the melodic lines and rhythms are not always the same, the piano parts are sometimes different, while some of the important postludes are differently shaped. This takes some getting used to on the part of the listener, not always helped by the "correct" accompaniments of Wolfgang Sawallisch, who has been more inspired on other occasions. Curiosity is aroused for the new edition promised by Hampson and Renate Hilmar-Voit, for the annotations also refer to "[p]ersistently repeated printing errors" in the current versions in print. This is a version that is self-recommending for its scholarly virtues, with the added attraction of Hampson's performance.

Matthias Goerne's reading will also find admirers for the firm tone and straightforward performance. Vladimir Ashkenazy, whose recent appearances on disc have been disappointing, is here in matter-of-fact vein, occasionally startling us with a wild postlude. Most disturbing is the heavy breathing of the singer, as if he were gulping for air, but that is most likely the fault of close microphone placement. This is doubly unfortunate for the plangent tone is allied to a verbal sensitivity that has few equals today, so that one finds it difficult to choose between Goerne and Hampson, though of contemporary readings both are required listening. Let me assure any cost-conscious consumers that even at 50 minutes, this disc is nonetheless a treasure.

Ian Bostridge is in a different category, for starters because he is a tenor, but one whose intelligence is in inverse proportion to the size of his voice. And that is his downfall, because much as we can admire his intentions and much of his singing, his tendency to overdo verbal inflection rapidly becomes an annoying mannerism, as his way with the word "schreien" is "Abends am Strand". The heroic is also not his domain, as we can hear at the end of "Die beiden Grenadiere". This is nonetheless a fascinating disc, as we discover a new exponent of lieder whose development should be fascinating, especially if his German improves. Julius Drake's accompaniments are discreet.

Another, even younger performer is introduced by Claves. Stephan Genz was not yet 25 years old when this disc was recorded (Goerne is just over and Bostridge just under 30), but the maturity he brings to these performances is astonishing. We have all of Schumann's Heine settings other than the "Dichterliebe", which allows us to hear the rare "Feindlichen Brüder" and the complete "Tragödie" in which the baritone is joined by his tenor brother. Where comparisons with Bostridge are possible, we can appreciate the simplicity of approach Genz brings to "Belsazar" or "Abends am Strand", where all the points are made without the necessity to underline the obvious. The voice, like that of Goerne or Hampson, has an intrinsic beauty which in all three cases is paired with an interpretative intelligence that is sufficient to assure us that the art of lieder singing is not about to become extinct. It only remains to be seen how his voice projects in concert, because a single hearing last December when Genz sang a small role in Die lustige Witwe in Paris was not especially audible. Again, the microphone placement is very close for both singer and pianist, so that the piano is too often percussive rather than offering a cushion for the voice.

For anyone wishing to experience other performances of these cycles, I can especially recommend Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (Decca) or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christoph Eschenbach (DGG); in both instances, we have not only a masterful interpretation from the singer, but the often-cited but too rarely experienced full partnership with a pianist whose contribution is at the same level of artistic achievement.

"Frauenliebe und -leben" may be the most performed of Schumann's vocal works, grateful for the performers and making no inordinate demands on an audience. The work is often decried for its over-sentimental poetry, which has not - as certain commentators would have us believe - fully inspired the composer. Although it is not my favorite among Schumann's works, it is nonetheless worthy of a certain esteem, even if its sappy verses will appeal only to the most retrograde listeners. Waltraud Meier's new recital disc is an error for the labored vocalism and interpretation - if that is not too kind a word - that is omnipresent, as well as for the invasive microphone placement that does not allow us to hear Gerhard Oppitz's imaginative accompaniments. Too many engagements in the Wagnerian soprano repertory have evidently robbed the singer's voice of any suppleness so that even the simple turn is the second song becomes a smudge. Brahms's Gypsy Songs are merely raucous.

A reissue in DGG's Double series devoted to the Art of Elisabeth Höngen is a fascinating reminder of an extraordinary artist. Her performances of the Brahms and Schumann cycles, alongside a series of operatic excerpts, show that she had little difficulty in making the transition between opera and recital, finding an appropriate tone for each item. Not only are Waltraute and Klytemnestra heard (the latter with Christel Goltz's Elektra), but also Azucena, Lady Macbeth, Dalila and Carmen, all in German, but in the light of these performances that is a minor hindrance. Höngen's way of illuminating every word, whether in Verdi or Wagner, remains a model that many singers today might profitably study. It is not the size of the voice that matters but the projection and the use of words that enable the singer to make an effect.

Schumann:Liederkreis, Op.24; Dichterliebe, Op.48; 7 lieder
Ian Bostridge, tenor
Julius Drake, piano
EMI 5 56575 2
Notes and translations in English, French and German

Schumann: Lieder to Poems by Heinrich Heine
Stephan Genz, baritone
Claar ter Horst, piano
Claves CD 50-9708
Notes and translations in English, French and German

Schumann: Liederkreis, Op.24; Dichterliebe, Op.48
Matthias Goerne, baritone
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
Decca 458 265-2
Notes and translations in English, French and German

Schumann: Liederkreis, Op.24; 20 Lieder und Gesänge aus dem Lyrischen Intermezzo (von Heintrich Heine) im Buch der Lieder, für eine Singstimme und das Pianoforte; Der Arme Peter
Thomas Hampson, baritone
Wolfgang Sawallisch, piano
EMI 5 55598 2
Notes and translations in English, French and German

L'art d'Elisabeth HöngenSchumann: Frauenliebe und -leben, Op.42; Brahms: Acht Zigeunerlieder, Op.103; plus Bach, Monteverdi, operatic excerpts from Wagner, Elektra, Trovatore, Macbeth, Samson et Dalila and Carmen
Elisabeth Höngen, mezzo-soprano
Various pianists, conductors and orchestras
DGG 457 973-2
Very brief biographical note in English and French

Schumann: Frauenliebe und -leben, Op.42; Brahms: Acht Zigeunerlieder, Op.103; Schubert: Mignon, D.321; Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, D.877; Ganymed, D.544; Gretchen am Spinnrade, D.118; Der Tod und das Mädchen, D.531; Die junge Nonne, D. 828
Waltraute Meier, mezzo-soprano
Gerhard Oppitz, piano
RCA 09026 68759 2
Notes and translations in English, French and German

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