Sarah Connolly & Eugene Asti – Schumann’s Songs of Love and Loss

0 of 5 stars

Schumann
Minnespiel aus Rückerts Liebesfrühling, Op.101 – No.4: Mein schöner Stern
Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart, Op.135
Sechs Gedichte von Nikolaus Lenau und Requiem, Op.90 – No.7: Requiem
Liederkreis, Op.39
Frauenliebe und -leben, Op.42

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano) & Eugene Asti (piano)

Recorded 12-14 December 2007 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, England


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: November 2008
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10492
Duration: 66 minutes

Every recital must have a theme. The title of this one suggests a duality which encompasses some of the content; it would be stretching things to say all. Another partially unifying factor would be the affinity between two women who express their experiences in poetry. A third, which is strongly implied by the performers and Lieder expert Richard Stokes, who provides the booklet note, is a desire to state the case for Schumann’s late song-writing, often considered to show the composer in decline, a situation associated with his worsening mental condition.

This “Frauenliebe und -leben” is a perfectly professional reading but not one which illuminates the work in any new way. Sarah Connolly and Eugene Asti do the obvious things: they observe the hesitations implicit in the opening song and never allow the volume level to rise above piano. Some rivals are much more ebullient in the second song ‘Er, der herrlichste von allen’. These two remain more truly innig as Schumann directs, not misled by the bounding melodic lines into prematurely celebrating her catch. Connolly emphasises her feeling of unworthiness. The final appearance of the opening words, delivered in a withdrawn style, finds her still dutiful and subservient. In this song the pianist holds her back; in ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen’ the accompanist surges forward and has to be restrained.

There are few uses of vocal power. ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ has a tranquil, measured atmosphere, in the context of which the climax at “ihm angehören ganz” is an all-the-more decisive announcement of her commitment to the man. Indeed, this is a rare moment of high energy. If anything, the impersonation of the subject supports the now largely discredited view of Chamisso’s poems as a sentimentalised representation of woman. In the bedroom scene ‘Süsser Freund’ one is struck by the depth and integrity of her love. ‘In seinem Herzen’ is taken fractionally too slowly to convey the returning excitement at motherhood and the last phrase is over-solemn, out of sync with the tumbling phrases of the piano postlude. Vocal focus returns forcefully for the final song. Within a sustained pianissimo the barren colouring of certain key words (“leer”, “lebend”, “Schleier”), with their accompanying dissonance, softens the stern censure of her address to her husband and invites compassion.

I find the ‘Mary Stuart’ settings rather more interesting and original. Not being as familiar as the Chamisso poems, they can make more of an impact. The collection denotes different stages in their putative author’s biography (no more than two are now reckoned to have been written by her). We learn much about the development of Mary’s character under the influence of her personal and political fortunes.

In ‘Abschied von Frankreich’ the flowing quavers and relaxed line project the sweet side of nostalgia, interrupted occasionally by stabs of pain, including the dissonance in the final bar of the postlude. The prayer after the birth of her son has a grave atmosphere and a chorale-like setting; Connolly’s characterisation catches the mixture of humility, maternal concern and defiance which poem and setting contain. The incisive rhythms and tonal weight of the pianist in Mary’s poem addressed to Queen Elizabeth reinforce the restless mood of the text, to which Connolly adds her own projection of mental turbulence through her enunciation of the poem’s vivid imagery.

In her farewell to the world Mary expresses a raft of different feelings: resignation as she willingly withdraws from personal ambition and political activities, residual protest and emotional warmth in the address to her friends, leading to a desire for peace with which she ends. All this is seamlessly enacted by Connolly. In the final prayer she emphasises the most expressive musical elements, the falling semitone of Mary’s appeals to God, Father and Son and the repeated swelling phrases of despair “In Klagen dir klagend, Im Staube verzagend”. The amount of drama which the singer extracts from this short sequence of songs is remarkable.

Where “Frauenliebe and -leben” tells a story through a series of snapshots taken at different stages of a woman’s relationship with a man, the Eichendorff “Liederkreis” comprises isolated lyric poems. It is notoriously difficult to unify. In some cases contrast between consecutive songs is strongly indicated, though it is hard to discern an unarguable logic behind the published order. As far as theme is concerned, a list of recurring ones might include mystery, travel, uncertainty or melancholy, even flight or darkness. Perhaps, as with Elgar’s Enigma Variations, there really is no answer, nor any point in seeking one.

Connolly’s account starts promisingly. ‘In der Fremde’ is delivered as if in a single phrase, with much ebbing and flowing of the line, even though the notation of pianissimo from the last beat of the fifth bar goes unobserved. Then Asti’s constant syncopation in ‘Intermezzo’ effectively convey frustration and impatience. Thereafter the bulk of the performance is understated. It could be argued that, with no marking louder than forte, this is a justified approach but I find it brings rather tame results at crucial times. Connolly is at her best when creating the delicate atmosphere of ‘Die Stille’ and painting the nocturnal magic of nature in ‘Mondnacht’. The latter, however, ends with a tinge of disappointment as she eschews the broad contrast in the final stanza. It is as if the poet remains lost in contemplation, when he should be experiencing the joy of release into flight.

There is no lack of intoxicated joy in ‘Schöne Fremde’, so it is again surprising to find the emotion held back in the climax of the cycle, ‘Frühlingsnacht’. The balance here seems ill-judged, with the piano too dominant in the first half of the song. Elsewhere Asti cannot be faulted. Devotional but not monumental in the organ chorale-like ‘Wehmut’ and initiating the two-part invention prelude of ‘Zwielicht’ with the right amount of rubato, above all stressing the nagging figures between the lines of ‘In der Fremde II’.

The recital is completed by two single songs torn from their original moorings. ‘Mein schöner Stern’ is described by Stokes as containing intimations of Schumann’s own madness. Connolly finds the wide-ranging phrases congenial to her solid legato technique. She goes one step further in the through-composed ‘Requiem’, immersing herself in the more overtly emotional scale of a song which expresses Schumann’s admiration for the dead poet Lenau.

Connolly has available an opulent sound and a commanding style. Her control over the voice is impressive but she has yet to achieve ownership of the Opus 39 “Liederkreis”, in which she has much recorded competition. With the one exception noted above, the recording is clear and well-balanced. Texts and translations are supplied. Chandos is to be congratulated for recording Sarah Connnolly in her first solo recital in core German Lieder repertory.

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