The Songs of Robert Schumann – 11/Hyperion

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Sechs Gesänge, Op.89 [selection: Es stürmet am Abendhimmel;Heimliches Verschwinden; Herbstlied; Abschied vom Walde; Ins Freie
Resignation, Op.83/1
Der Einsiedler, Op.83/3
Mein altes Ross, Op.127/4
Drei Gesänge Op.95 [Die Tochter Jephthas; An den Mond; Dem Helden]
Minnespiel, Op.101 [Meine Töne still und heiter; Liebster, deine Worte stehlen; Ich bin dein Baum; Mein schöner Stern!; Schön ist das Fest des Lenzes; O Freund, mein Schirm, mein Schutz!; Die tausend Grüsse; So wahr die Sonne scheinet]
Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers, Op.36 [Sonntags am Rhein; Ständchen; Nichts Schöneres; An den Sonnenschein;Dichters Genesung; Liebesbotschaft]
Aus Des Sängers Fluch, Op.139 [Provenzalisches Lied; Ballade]
Der Handschuh, Op.87

Hanno Muller-Brachmann (baritone), Katherine Broderick & Geraldine McGreevy (sopranos), Stella Doufexis (mezzo-soprano), Adrian Thompson (tenor), Stephan Loges (baritone) & Graham Johnson (piano)

Recorded June 2000 (Minnespiel) & May 2007 [location not advised]

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: February 2009
Duration: 78 minutes



Gesamtausgabe of the songs of Robert Schumann. As with its Schubert Edition, Schumann’s output of songs has not been recorded chronologically and this final volume does not entirely avoid the impression of being composed of odds and ends. From 1840, the settings of Opus 36 have been held back to balance the late songs of 1849 to 1852.

As always with these issues, the music must be listened to in conjunction with Graham Johnson’s amazingly detailed and comprehensive notes. Here he tackles the debate over the quality of Schumann’s song-writing head-on. The accusation that the composer‘s choice of texts became less assured in the late-1840s and his settings inconsistent has been prevalent for a long time. Recent, more-sympathetic assessments of the late works are here given full value, though Johnson is not deaf to weaknesses in certain songs.

The main vocal participant on this release is Hanno Müller-Brachmann, a singer who was previously unfamiliar to me. I was expecting the latest in the line of young, well-bred Lieder singers, mellifluous of sound, with strong vocal personalities and imaginative as interpreters. In the event, Müller-Brachmann is a late arrival on the scene, approaching forty despite youthful looks. Vocally he can offer resonance in his lower register and powerful high notes but pleasure is limited because of a dry area at the centre of the voice that resembles a yawn.

Opus 36 comprises settings of six poems by the artist and engraver Robert Reinick, a cycle stemming from 1840 but not associated with the battle for Clara’s hand. Johnson posits a view that such works suffer in quality precisely because of the composer’s lack of subjective involvement. In this case there is the quality of the poetic ideas to consider. The opening ‘Sonntags am Rhein’ implies a vision of a united Germany but in a naïve, idealised form: a picture of pastoral contentment, of a cohesive, god-fearing community united by the great river Rhine, mediaeval castles representing the faithfulness of true Germans to tradition. The music is as direct and picturesque as that implies, the final apostrophe to “das fromme, treue Vaterland” a diatonic predecessor to the finale of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”.

The vocal part has a surprisingly wide range. Brachmann summons a suitable ring on the high notes of this patriotic declaration. ‘Ständchen’ is a potentially beguiling song and there is something of the required rubato in Brachmann’s interpretation. His mezza voce singing does not, however, maintain its charm in the isolated high notes Schumann requires him to launch. The presentation of strong erotic feelings gets a more convincing expression from him in ‘Nichts Schöneres’. The way that he manages the climax of the song in the final verse by pressing on across the lines and then repeating the last couplet is a conspicuous interpretative intervention.

“Dichters Genesung”, a kind of “Lorelei” with a happy ending, receives a curate’s egg of a performance. The rolled Rs and clipped vowels early on are irritating but both artists build to the appearance of the Queen of the Elves; and a fearful character she is, as impersonated by the baritone. Nevertheless, the poet is more than a match for her in his response and the true weight of Brachmann’s voice emerges here in suitable measure. In ‘Liebesbotschaft’ he moves smoothly between registers in this ceaselessly flowing song.

The group of later songs begins with “Resignation”, a song that has had a particularly bad press. Schumann’s love-songs inspired by his love for Clara Wieck are unsentimental by comparison with this. The mercurial nature of this song suits Müller-Brachmann. The vocal line rarely settles in the hollow central area of his voice and he makes a decent case for it. “Der Einsiedler”, Schumann’s revisiting of the poet Eichendorff, source of the Opus 24 “Liederkreis”, is written in a chorale-like style appropriate for the deeply religious poet. The singer here seems to view that as excluding romantic effusiveness and opportunities to reflect the magic of night’s approach are spurned in favour of a rather stern coolness.

The senior quality of the voice is an advantage in the 1850 song “Mein altes Ross”. The poet/lover and his one-time mount are both ageing, the rider nostalgically aware of the passing of time and the end of a once passionate relationship, the horse frustrated by his declining energy and lost share in his master’s expeditions. Johnson suggests that Schumann was attracted to the poem by his consciousness of his own mortality and especially of the changes which he had undergone in the ten years since 1840, when his love for Clara had been at its freshest and most pugnacious. The poet Moritz, Graf von Strachwitz died at only 25 and Schumann’s own condition was palpably worsening. The singer’s grey tone at the opening conveys the down-in-the-mouth feeling of the aged lover but it is not long before the body language of the horse generates a lightening of his mood, with the first stirrings of memory, symbolised by horn-call imitations on the piano, soon leading to a full-scale reconstruction of the regular journey to the assignation with his beloved. Details are painted with much onomatopoeia, the beloved’s touch on the horse’s neck, the breakneck return gallop, the quail’s call. Sadly reality kicks in: the gallop turns into a funeral march and the music subsides as the poet acknowledges the desolation that has replaced both his past and his own emotions. This setting deserves to appear much more often in recital programmes.

Eric Sams, author of what was until recently the standard work on the songs of Robert Schumann, derides Schumann’s judgement in choosing for his Opus 89 cycle texts by Wilfried von der Neun, Johnson sees his motivation as being a shared response to the failed revolution of 1849; the poems are emblems of political hopes dashed but replaced by faith in the eternal values of nature. He also detects an attempt to catch up with the new musical style already being espoused by Wagner. Certainly hearing the first song ‘Es stürmet am Abendhimmel’ one can hardly fail to notice the much denser piano texture and the repeated chromatic figure heard frequently in the song is a proto-leitmotif. Darkness extinguishes hopes for freedom and in conveying the desolation as the song subsides in the final stanza Müller-Brachmann has one of his best moments.

Other songs involve familiar members of the Johnson team. The three songs of Opus 95, on Julius Körner’s translations of Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, are sung by Katherine Broderick with a keen sense of atmosphere, though her nervous vibrato does grate a little. She attacks ‘Die Tochter Jephthas’ with the recklessness of a fanatic. Her melody constantly rears and plunges though intervals of a seventh, making her possession of a telling chest-register particularly valuable. The piano never stops its parallel torrential progress, the song continuing with no regard for the separate verses.

The accompaniment for these songs is marked for either piano or harp. Only ‘An den Mond’, with its strummed chords, seems suitable for the latter instrument. The song is a gentle interlude between its two neighbours, based on an analogy between the moon’s faint, cold light and the fading of once-powerful memories. There is strong competition from other composers, notably Hugo Wolf, in this song. ‘Dem Helden’, whose unnamed hero is clearly King Saul, is a public panegyric unconvincingly clothed by Schumann in bombastic music. Broderick cannot avoid sounding hectoring in this.

“Minnespiel” is a collection of solo and ensemble pieces from 1849 to texts by Rückert. There is clearly an autobiographical element in Schumann’s settings. They suggest a change in his relationship with Clara, in which she has acquired greater authority, while he is less sure of himself. Adrian Thompson’s light, youthful timbre is twice enlisted to play the part of the wooing male. In ‘Mein schöner Stern’, the only one of the set admired by Sams, he passes the technical test of moving between registers, while conveying the poet’s dependence on his beloved for alleviating his moments of depression. Her reply, a tribute to his creative achievement, is finely voiced through the opulent tone of Geraldine McGreevy. Clara’s protective role at this unsure stage of Schumann’s life is expressed in ‘O Freund, mein Schirm, mein Schutz!’ by the dependable mezzo of Stella Doufexis, to a piano accompaniment which hovers between Wagnerian chromaticism and Bachian counterpoint. The duets and quartets lack the subjective element and are less memorable.

Opus 139 is a curious hybrid work of thirteen numbers for soloists and chorus with orchestral accompaniment written in 1852 and based on Uhland’s macabre ballad “Des Sängers Fluch”. Mediaeval minstrelsy is depicted in several songs, the words of which were cobbled together by Schumann’s collaborator Richard Pohl from several of the poet’s works, plus some words of his own. The two songs included here are those whose separate publication Schumann sanctioned. ‘Provenzalisches Lied’, again featuring Adrian Thompson, is a fanciful account of the birth of the expression of love through song in mediaeval Provence. It relies for its effect on strumming chords and melodic lines that show little development. ‘Ballade’ tells the story of a minstrel’s revenge against a tyrannical monarch at speed and in angularly shaped, awkward phrases which Müller-Brachmann’s style embodies well, though without flattering the music. Without knowing the whole work I cannot see this as evidence in the later Schumann’s defence.

The last track, a setting of Schiller’s ballad “Der Handschuh” dated 1850 is very literal: the movements of the animals, the taunting challenge of Lady Kunigunde, the knight’s nimble recovery of her glove and his flinging of the glove in her face, all are enacted by Müller-Brachmann with much variation of tone and sense of action.

This is the culmination of an invaluable enterprise. The background of, and analysis of each song in the accompanying booklet is a work of art, but the print is so small that I am sure even those with more youthful eyes than mine must find it a strain to read. I hope the notes that go with each release can be collected into a book.

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