Scenes from Schumann – a 2001 tribute from the South Bank

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Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield and Geoff Allen

Reviewed: 2 February, 2001
Venue: QEH & RFH - February 2001

A report from Nick Breckenfield and Geoff Allen

2 February, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Genoveva Op.81 (concert performance sung in English)
Opera North – Patricia Schuman (Genoveva), Christopher Purves (Siegfried), Paul Nilon (Golo), Sally Burgess (Margaretha; sorceress), Clive Bayley (Drago)
Opera North Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Steven Sloane
10 February, Royal Festival Hall
Das Paradies und die Peri Op.50 (sung in German)
Christine Goerke (Die Peri), Mary Plazas (soprano), Bernarda Fink (mezzo), Paul Nilon and Peter Auty (tenors) & Tómas Tómasson (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of The Age of the Enlightenment conducted by Mark Elder
12 February, Queen Elizabeth Hall
Songs including Spanische Liebeslieder Op.138; Brahms: Liebesliederwaltzer, Op.52
Emma Bell (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo), Toby Spence (tenor) & Stephan Loges (bass)
with Roger Vignoles and Michael Hampton (piano)
17 February, Queen Elizabeth Hall
Duets – Herbstlied Op.43/No.22, Familiengemälde Op. 34/No.44, Ich denke dein Op.78/No.3, Schön Blümelein Op.43/No.3; Myrthen Op.25; Duets: Ich bin dein Baum, O Gärtner Op.101/No.3, Schön ist das Fest des Lenzes Op. 37/No.7, Wiegenlied am Lager eines kranken Kindes Op.78/No.4, Tanzlied Op.78/No.1
Christiane Oelze (soprano) & Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone) with Roger Vignoles (piano)
22 February, Queen Elizabeth Hall
Harfenspieler-lieder Op. 98a; Lenau-Lieder Op. 90; Liederkreis Op. 39; Aus den östlichen Rosen, Freisinn & Aus dem Schenkenbuch (from Op.25)
Robert Holl (baritone) & Roger Vignoles (piano)
Nick Breckenfield writes… In addition to contemporary composer festivals (for example, the current Henze extravaganza), Amelia Freedman, wearing her South Bank hat, has annually championed established (dead) composers with the little resources the Royal Festival Hall is actually able to put towards programming. This winter, Freedman’s focus was on Schumann, in a mini-series encompassing just five concerts over a three-week span as well as a masterclass session and a couple of talks.

Schumann is, like the majority of composers, known for very little of his output. Many of the piano works are justly loved and can act as a sure-fire selling point, but here we were denied any solo pieces. None of the symphonies were programmed either (although Sir Charles Mackerras had offered the Second in an independent OAE concert just a couple of weeks beforehand), and it was a serendipitous happenstance that found Thielemann and the Philharmonia programming Schumann’s Violin Concerto at a concert that nestled between the OAE Paradies and vocal quartet concerts.

So with what were we left? Rarities, but all worthy of much more regular outings, making three concerts I heard hugely enjoyable and instructive, which were also notable, regrettably, for a lack of audience. More fool the majority (their loss), although that can’t make programming such festivals any easier in the future. What puts people off? The fact that they had never heard that Schumann wrote an opera, or there’s a cantata after Thomas Moore? It’s impossible to tell, although we may bemoan the unadventurous nature of concertgoers. How do you persuade them that they will not be wasting their money and that they will suddenly discover whole new musical worlds that they may never have known existed?

That is what Scenes from Schumann did. Not one of these performances could have been criticised for heavy-handedness. The argument that Schumann’s orchestration is conservative at best, and plain bad at worst, because he was too nervous to have solo lines, so doubled every entry on another instrument, was blown apart in these performances, which were admirably clear both in performance and presentation. David Pountney’s translation of Genoveva, while not being able to hide some of the implausibilities in the plot, was cogent, direct and distinctly audible. Yes, the plot is faintly ludicrous (Genoveva’s fidelity is tested while Siegfried her knightly husband is at war, and when he finds out he vows revenge; thankfully at the end they are joyously re-united), but no more illogical than all of Weber’s plots and – let’s face it – Wagner’s. Intriguingly, Wagner, when shown the score of Genoveva by its composer, offered criticism for the ’magic music’ in Act 3 (where the sorceress Margaretha conjures up a mirror for Siegfried, wounded in battle, to see Genoveva being ’unfaithful’) – but Schumann felt Wagner was jealous (Schumann’s magic predates the ’magic fire music’ in Die Walküre by some five years).

This concert performance in the Queen Elizabeth Hall reconvened the Opera North company that staged the work, directed by Pountney, at the Edinburgh Festival last year and subsequently toured. With a universally excellent cast and chorus, conducted authoritatively by Opera North’s Music Director, Steven Sloane, this performance was a triumph, and – hopefully – will have put Schumann as opera composer back on the map. (This performance was dedicated to the memory of long-time Opera North participant, Keith Latham, who had died the previous week.)

Eight days later it was the turn of oratorio to be given the carpet-beating treatment, to rid it of the decades of accrued dust and prejudice. If Schumann is remembered for choral works then it is for Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, an episodic work written over a number of years and, consequently, with distinct stylistic differences. For the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s contribution to Scenes from Schumann, it was the earlier Das Paradies und die Peri, written in 1843 – a decade before the Goethe setting was finished – that received the authentic treatment – ophicleide included (Misha Donat in his absorbing note suggested this might have been a Berliozian influence, although Schumann’s great friend Mendelssohn had used one in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, which Schumann cannot have failed to know.)

This secular oratorio (Schumann described it as ’an oratorio not for the oratory, but rather for cheerful folk’) gave Schumann one of his greatest successes at its première on 4 December 1843 – with a repeat performance having to be quickly arranged. This tied into the OAE’s Pioneering Orchestras season, this concert was the second visit into the Leipzig Gewandhaus’s history. With authentic instruments and professional choir, we could perhaps now hear how Schumann himself envisaged his work and, despite a plot line much more difficult to take seriously than even Genoveva, we could assimilate Schumann’s unfailing melodic, orchestral and choral ear. Yes, this was a triumph, with unimpeachable performances from tenor Paul Nilon as the narrator and Christine Goerke as the Peri herself. A quartet of vocalists (arranged, coincidentally, in ascending order of height against the descending order of pitch – from the smallest, soprano Mary Plazas to the tallest, bass Tómas Tómasson) sang the interpolated arias with the occasional foray to play characters, as the story demanded. Thus mezzo Bernarda Fink sang the angel and tenor Peter Auty sang the young man.

Ideally I would rather forget Moore’s quaint little tale (from his collection of four oriental tales, Lalla Rookh), about the titular progeny of a fallen angel and a mortal wishing to gain entry to Heaven, and being told to search for ’the gift that is most dear to Heaven’. Her first find was the blood of a courageous young man killed in battle (in India); her second was the final sigh of love of a girl who would rather die with her lover (in Egypt) than live alone and – finally – her success with the Syrian who repents his sins at the sight of a young boy praying. At last the pearly gates are opened and the oratorio can end in triumph. Schumann rises to the occasion, but not before displaying complete sureness of form – especially in the wholly committed and secure hands of Mark Elder – in a work that demands to be heard more often, because, if it was, so much repeated rubbish about Schumann’s failings would dissipate faster than a disappearing Peri!

Now to the Schumanniade arranged by Roger Vignoles, with a choice quartet of young singers whose voices (not surprisingly with Vignoles in charge) melded perfectly together. The first half was all-Schumann – two individual songs apiece for each singer in turn – soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass, before returning back to soprano to repeat the order – from no less than seven separate published collections (he published no fewer than 47 opus numbers of groups of songs). Then the four singers came together for the late, 1849, group of songs based on Emmanuel Geibel’s adaptations of Iberian folksongs, the Spanish Love-songs. Joined by second pianist Michael Hampton, these fairly zipped along in fervour and humour by turns, ending in the only actual quartet of the cycle, Dunkler Lichtglanz, blinder Blick.

After the interval it was Schumann’s discovered protégé, Johannes Brahms, that took centre-stage, for the first book of his Liebeslieder-waltzer to texts by Georg Friedrich Daumer. Written some two decades after Spanish Love-songs, these display a remarkable wit and ardour for a composer who remained unmarried and is commonly regarded as seriously dull (in his aspect, if not his music). However for the few who have already discovered the beauty of these 18 songs, duets, trios and quartets, this was a rare treat.

Geoff Allen writes… The South Bank’s series Scenes from Schumann brought a rare opportunity for the south side of the river to hear some superb Lieder singers in the final two recitals – of contrasts, early and late, serious and lighter songs, ones familiar and those hardly known and, not least, voices silver- and granite-toned.

Common to both concerts was the estimable Roger Vignoles. I hope it won’t be taken the wrong way if I say that I almost didn’t notice him. Vignoles never draws attention to himself as some more ’superstar’ pianists do when they are involved with Lieder. Vignoles is not just an accompanist but a true partner. He clearly knows and loves these songs; his playing is so ’right’ and matches every nuance of the singers.

The concert with Oelze and Holzmair gave a rare opportunity to hear the collection, Myrthen, all 26 songs, (with the interval taken at the halfway point). Myrthen was one of Schumann’s earliest attempts at composing Lieder and if it is of uneven quality, it’s still a very wonderful gift to this bride Clara. Some of the songs are amongst Schumann’s most-loved creations, including Der Nussbaum and Widmung. Christiane Oelze, a singer known mainly for Mozart and as Glyndebourne’s recent Melisande, sang these with exquisite purity. However Miss Oelze is an accomplished Lieder singer as her hard to find Berlin Classics’ CDs testify. Hers is not just a beautiful voice as her singing of Widmung showed – she brought out the spontaneous rapture of the song; Der Nussbaum’s very personal yearning quality brought a lump to the throat.

Wolfgang Holzmair is, of course, one of the finest and popular Lieder singers currently before the public: he didn’t disappoint here with his light, plangent baritone bringing intensity to the least of these songs. He illuminated everything and managed the most intricate vocal passages – the beginning of Aus den hebräischen Gesängen – without the slightest difficulty. Especially memorable was his singing of Du bist wie eine Blume, underlying the beauty and sweep of Schumann’s creation.

Various duets were either side of Myrthen. These are ’drawing room’ songs in the best sense. None pretend to greatness, but their romanticism, openness and pure charm are hard to resist. A perfect example of this was Tanzlied – the piano’s waltz set against the lady’s joie de vivre and the gentleman’s coldness; the signers silver-light voices blended perfectly and delightfully.

Robert Holl’s massive bass-baritone was in complete contrast for his recital, which again mixed much-loved and less familiar settings, the Op.39 Liederkreis often performed, the much later Harfenspieler-lieder and Lenau-Lieder hardly at all.

The first half consisted of these ’unknown’ songs. The Harfenspieler-lieder, which have a spare, stark quality to them, are less well known than Schubert’s or Wolf’s settings. These songs gave Holl the opportunity to bring out their full melancholic expressiveness, especially so in Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass which rises to a climax of the utmost sorrow. The Lenau-Lieder again deals with darker aspects of existence. Holl brought optimum soul-bearing to Einsamkeit in which singer and pianist created utter bleakness.

One might have anticipated a very different mood for the Liederkreis. So often one has had one’s ears ravished by beautiful singing intoning the romantic feeling and gorgeous melodies of this cycle. There was little of that from Holl. Both performers seemed intent in bringing out the depths of these songs and underlining the prevailing despondency of faraway exile. In the first song, In der Fremde, Holl used a half-voice (or quarter) to stress the feeling of separation from everything in the past, thus reducing the importance of melody and beauty of voice. The effect was powerful and affecting, although perhaps overdone – I wished for a bit more light in such songs as In der Fremde, which is all brooks, nightingales and moonbeams.

Undeniably, we were in the presence of a master interpreter bringing a rare intensity to everything he sung. And he certainly lightened up in the encores, all taken from Op.25, the Myrthen songs previously heard from Holzmair.

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