The Hyperion Schumann Song Edition

Maurice Richter

[February 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:3.]

The English label Hyperion, following on the heels of its complete Schubert song edition (which will comprise thirty-seven CDs, of which thirty-three are now available) has released the first three volumes of a projected complete Schumann song edition. The Schubert edition is one of the truly major recording projects, and the Schumann collection bids fair to rival it if the quality of future releases matches the superb level of these first three discs.

As with the Schubert edition, this series is the creation of Graham Johnson, who brings extraordinary intelligence and craft to his piano accompaniments (which belie the word “accompaniment” by making the piano everywhere an equal partner in a collaborative endeavor.)

Johnson also provides the encyclopedic notes which bring his great breadth of knowledge and understanding to bear on the individual songs. These comprehensive notes, as with the Schubert collection, constitute an unprecedented source of detailed information about each song and its background and provide, in fact, possibly the finest text yet on the Schumann songs.The recording quality in each of these first three volumes is flawless, the voices perfectly balanced with the piano.

VOLUME ONE — CHRISTINE SCHÄFER

The first volume, Hyperion CDJ 33101, marks an auspicious beginning. Containing mostly late songs of Schumann written from 1849 to 1852, it pairs the soprano Christine Schäfer with Graham Johnson in a revelatory series of performances which make as fine a case for the frequently criticized and neglected late songs as can be made. It has been claimed that Schumann’s failing health (he was suffering from tertiary syphilis and depression) led to a decline in his song-writing abilities, but it is also possible to speculate that, influenced by the more continuous melody and chromaticism then being used by Wagner, Schumann was experimenting with a newer, less strophic style. His later songs seem to be filled with a new, more ambiguous chromaticism, particularly in the Opus 107 songs, an economy of invention and a lesser use of the piano which is more often than not relegated to the rôle of a merely accompanying instrument.

Schäfer, who has become one of our finest young singers, has had some eminent teachers, indeed, having studied with the late Arleen Auger, Aribert Reimann, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Sena Jurinac. Her highly praised recital debut took place in 1988 at the Berlin Festival at which she sang Aribert Reimann’s Nachträume, and she has since developed an acclaimed concert and recital career throughout Europe, singing with many of the continent’s orchestras and choirs. Schäfer’s American debut was with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Mahler Symphony No. 4 in both Boston and New York. Her operatic debut was as Papagena at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1991, and she has sung Pamina at the Salzburg Festival, Zerlina and Gilda in Bern, Lulu in Innsbruck, Salzburg and at Glyndebourne, Sophie with the San Francisco Opera, Lucia for the Welsh National Opera, Titania in Britten’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream in Tel Aviv, Servilia in Mozart’s La Clemenza da Tito at the Glyndebourne Festival, Pamina in Amsterdam and Zdenka in Strauss’s Arabella in Houston.

Schäfer opens with “Röselein, Röselein!” (“Little Rose“), a wistful song from 1850, sung with an innocent directness and purity that transcend the sentimentality of the poem. This is followed by the haunting simplicity of “Mädchen-Schwermen” (“A Girl’s Melancholy“). A baroque grandiosity appears in the powerfully sung “Melancholie” (“Melancholy”), followed by the two delightful “Zigeunerliedchen” (“Gypsy Ditties”), the first sung with bright freshness by Schäfer, the second with haunting plaintiveness. The Mendelssohnian “Die Meerfee” (“The Sea Fairy”) sparkles. The Opus 107 “Der Gärtner” (“The Gardener”) is better known in the later setting of this Mörike poem by Hugo Wolf, as is “Die Spinnerin” (“At the Spinning-Wheel”) in the setting by Brahms, but Schäfer and Johnson make a most persuasive case for the Schumann settings. Schäfer, throughout this recital, has a wonderful sense of legato. Her clear, bright, silvery voice is constantly sensitive to the shifting moods of the poems, and she sings with an unaffected directness that is most winning.

Schumann’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (“Longing”) is much less well-known than the settings of this Goethe poem by Tchaikovsky (“None but the Lonely Heart”) or Schubert. Johnson notes that “the song recorded here is highly experimental, as if composed with a musical equivalent of stream-of-consciousness technique.” It is much worth the hearing.

Schäfer achieves a wonderful, warm intimacy in “Meine Rose” (“My Rose”) and an operatic power in “Requiem,” among the seven Opus 90 songs to poems of Lenau. In this last she displays phenomenal breath control. In all these songs, her voice is firmly focused. She is quite dramatic in a most moving performance of Mignon’s Song “Kennst du das Land?” (“Do You Know the Land?”), better known in the Hugo Wolf setting, but one of Schumann’s finest songs and a high point of the recital. Schäfer sings here with mounting intensity, bringing an overwhelming desperation to the climax of the song. The elegiac quality of “Einsamkeit” (“Solitude”) is perfectly captured. “Der schwere Abend” (“The Sultry Evening”) immediately recalls Schumann’s earlier “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet”) from Dichterliebe.

The recital closes with the engaging “Aufträge” (“Messages”), a charming strophic song as delightfully sung as I have ever heard, with the fiendishly difficult piano part containing right hand demisemiquavers superbly negotiated by Johnson. A fine, illuminating recital, then, and much worth hearing. This CD won the Gramophone award as the best vocal recital of 1997.

VOLUME TWO — SIMON KEENLYSIDE

Volume 2 of the edition, CDJ 33102, presents songs to poems of Goethe, Lenau, Geibel and Kerner sung by the baritone Simon Keenlyside, beginning with four songs of the Harper, Opus 98a from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. The first Harper’s Ballad opens with arpeggiated piano chords in which the piano imitates the sound of the harp, and these permeate the song. Lyrical passages alternate with an arioso, almost conversational style characteristic of the late Schumann and suggesting the style of Wagner. The second song “Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass” (“Who Never Ate his Bread in Tears”) is almost improvisatory, while the third, “Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt” (“Who Gives Himself to Loneliness”), is seemingly of uncertain tonality. These four songs are dark in mood and much freer in form than the earlier Schumann songs. Keenlyside offers powerful interpretations here, capturing equally the somberness, the grandeur and the torment of the Harper. The fourth of the Harper songs, “An die Türen will ich schleichen” (“From Door to Door Will I Steal”) is the finest of the set, poignant, quiet, perfectly capturing the old man’s wandering mind. In Keenlyside’s rendition, the song is quite moving — he and Johnson make a fine case for these rarely performed songs. Although the settings by Schubert and Wolf of these same poems are better known, Schumann’s are much worth hearing.

The four Lenau Husarenlieder, Opus 117, are completely different — the first, “Der Husar, trara!” (“Hurrah for the Hussar!”) a bold, swaggering outburst, “Der leidige Frieden” (“The Tedious Peace”) a song of almost Mahlerian darkness. The third song, “Den grünen Zeigern” (“Green Wine-bushes”) is the least effective of the cycle, the fourth “Da liegt der Feinde gestreckte Schar” (“There Lies the Foe Stretched Out”) an ominous portrayal of the sea of blood that is a battlefield. Three songs to poems of Emanuel Geibel, Opus 30, follow. Though these date from the great song writing year of 1840, the first two, at least, are much less well-known than many of Schumann’s other songs dating from the same period. Keenlyside is a sympathetic interpreter of these Knabenhorn settings, shading his fine baritone to fully capture the meaning of each poem . The melodious, extroverted “Der Hidalgo” (“The Hidalgo”), third of the Geibel songs, is delightful as delivered by Keenlyside with Johnson always an equal partner. “Die Löwenbraut” (“The Lion’s Betrothed”), a long ballad to a poem of Chamisso follows, and then the twelve familiar Kerner settings, Opus 35, that constitute a quasi-cycle. Here are some of Schumann’s finest songs from the annus mirabilis 1840. The first of these “Lust der Sturmnacht” (“The Wild Night’s Joy”) contrasts the raging storm outside with the warmth and peace inside. It is an almost epic song of varying mood and demanding vocal line, powerfully sung by Keenlyside, as is the extroverted “Wanderlied” (“Travel Song”). The quiet sensitivity Keenlyside brings to the fourth and fifth strophes after the outgoing first three is lovely to hear. “Erstes Grün” (“First Green”) is one of the most magical, loveliest of all Schumann songs, full of poignant chromaticism and is exquisitely sung here. “Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes” (“To the Drinking Glass of a Departed Friend”) is a solemn, veiled, contemplative song, a ceremony of remembrance that becomes almost a séance, affectingly sung by Keenlyside.

“Stille Liebe” (“Silent Love”) is a quiet reflection on Schumann’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of his wife Clara’s accomplishments. And despite his plaint about not being able to write a sufficiently beautiful tribute, he has composed a truly lovely song. The influence of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte is clear here, as is that of Schubert. “Stille Tränen” (“Silent Tears”) is a panoramic, epic song, while “Wer machte dich so krank?” (“Who Made You so Ill?”) is an arioso — half spoken, half sung. “Alte Laute” (“Old Sounds”), composed to almost the same music, forms an elegiac conclusion to the cycle, full of pathos and undoubtedly reflecting Schumann’s depression at the time. These last two songs are tied together musically, forming in essence one long, sad musing on physical and mental illness, revealingly indicative of Schumann’s state of mind.

These wonderful Kerner lieder, as every song on this fine disc, are thoughtfully, movingly sung by the eloquent Keenlyside, whose command of the changing mood of the songs and great sensitivity leave nothing to be desired. Johnson’s pianism could not be improved, and his accompanying notes are, as always, exhaustive, full of scholarly detail and fascinating to read. A fine recording, indeed!

VOLUME THREE — JULIANE BANSE

Volume 3, CDJ 33103, brings the warm, full soprano of Juliane Banse to a collection of songs, some well-known, some less so. Banse, who has won many scholarships and prizes, made her operatic debut at the Komische Oper, Berlin, in 1989 singing Pamina and was re-engaged to sing Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo in 1991 as well as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro in 1992. She then sang Sophie at the Salzburg Festival, Zerlina at Glyndebourne, Pamina, Sophie and the Massenet Manon at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, such roles as Zdenka, Susanna, Pamina, Sophie and Marzelline at the Vienna State Opera and Musetta in Cologne. Her American debut occurred in 1995 in the Mahler Symphony No. 2 with Leonard Slatkin conducting the St Louis Symphony Orchestra and in Haydn’s Seasons with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Raymond Leppard. Needless to say, Banse is an ardent lieder singer, whose recital tour of Germany in May 1997 was highly praised.

She opens with the short “Loreley” from Schumann’s great songwriting year of 1840 and beautifully captures the otherwordliness of this lovely miniature. “Sag an, o lieber Vogel mein” (“Tell me, my Dear Bird”) is an appealing manifestation of Schumann’s ability to capture the simplicity and wonder of childhood in his music. The freshness of Banse here is a joy to the ear. The better-known “Die Kartenlegerin” (“The Fortune-teller”) gets a performance of enormous charm and flair from Banse. “Blondels Lied” (“Blondel’s Song”) is a ballad-like, deliberately archaic song of great ingenuity dealing with one of Schumann’s abiding interests, the Crusades.

The great cycle Frauenliebe und Leben is sung with incredible sensitivity and sympathy. Banse captures every change of mood of the woman who sings about her life and love, avoiding any touch of sentimentality. Johnson, as always, is the perfect accompanist. This performance is as fine as any I have ever heard, achieving an intimacy, a simplicity and depth of utterance that are beyond criticism. Banse concludes the cycle by reading the one poem of Chamisso that Schumann chose not to set.

“Die Soldatenbraut” (“The Soldier’s Sweetheart”) is a delicious morsel constructed around the rhythm of a mock march, and it is engagingly sung. Schumann chose to champion the poetry of Elisabeth Kullman, a gifted orphan who by the age of fifteen had mastered eleven languages. Before her early death at the age of seventeen, Kullman published translations of the work of Anacreon (in eight volumes), as well as translations into Russian of Metastasio. Alfieri, Camoens and Milton. Schumann came across her poems and in setting seven of them hoped to spread her fame. Sieben Lieder von Elisabeth Kullman zur Erinnerung an die Dichterin (Seven Songs to Words by Elisabeth Kullman, in Memory of the Poetess) are songs of transparent simplicity with almost folksong-like melodies. The first of these, the lovely “Mond, meiner Seele Liebling” (“Moon, my Soul’s Beloved”) displays Schumann’s considerable skill in achieving a childlike innocence. Banse sings these with magical artlessness, preceding each song with a reading of Schumann’s touching introductions.

The last of Schumann’s song cycles, set to poems attributed to the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, dates from 1852. The songs in turn depict Mary’s sad farewell to her adopted land (France) when she was sent back at not quite nineteen to Scotland, then the young mother’s concern for her son’s legacy (in a song that is almost a private prayer), followed by the proud, imprisoned Mary writing a pleading letter to Queen Elizabeth, then, still imprisoned Mary, years later, singing a farewell to the world in which she renounces all hope, and, finally, Mary’s prayer before a terrible death. These are concise, simple, deeply moving songs that belie the image of a decline of inspiration in the late songs. Banse brings a dark, meditative warmth to them. Her totally unaffected, beautifully focused singing and close partnership with the unsurpassed pianism of Graham Johnson make this disc a high point in the recording of lieder. It is not to be missed. I eagerly await the fourth volume of what promises to be a major contribution to the recorded lieder repertory.

MOZART’S ZAIDE

Mozart’s unfinished, untitled singspiel, now known as Zaide, remains a promising enigma. Begun in 1779 to a text by Johann Andreas Schachtner, the Salzburg court musician who was a close friend of the Mozart family, this work was eventually abandoned by Mozart, presumably because there were no performance prospects. It was not until 1799 that Mozart’s widow sold the incomplete manuscript for publication, which occurred in 1838 and, finally, given the name Zaide (the name of the heroine) a stage première took place on the one hundred tenth anniversary of Mozart’s birth, January 27, 1866.

The incomplete score consists of fifteen musical numbers, probably constituting two of three projected acts. All are of high quality and clearly anticipate Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and Idomeneo. Zaide is a singspiel on a “Turkish” theme — Europeans captured or shipwrecked in a Moslem country are forced into slavery only to be freed in the end by a sultan who proves to be more enlightened than European potentates. The setting in an oriental harem provides the opportunity for exotic costumes and sets and made the form quite popular at the time. Gluck’s La rencontre imprévue (1764) and Haydn’s L’incontro improvviso (1777) were operatic predecessors of Zaide as Mozart’s own later Abduction from the Seraglio is its successor.

Fascinating to hear in an excellent recording from Harmonia Mundi, HMU 90 7205, are the two melodramas (declaimed speech that is punctuated by vividly dramatic music) one for Gomatz, the hero, (Band 2), the other for the Sultan Soliman (Band 9). The first of these has a brief (and beautifully played) oboe solo.

The performance far outclasses any previous recording of the work. Lynne Dawson sings an exquisite Zaide, her aria “Ruhe sanft” sung with a quiet beauty and complete command of the style — this is Mozart singing at its best. Hans Peter Blochwitz is a splendid, fresh-voiced, musical Gomatz, ardent and warm. His is the perfect voice for the roles of Tamino in The Magic Flute or Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Herbert Lippert as the Sultan Soliman displays a fine lyrical tenor, and Olaf Bär brings star casting to the smaller rôle of Allazim, with Christopher Purvis offering good support as Osmin. Paul Goodwin’s conducting is perfect — his pacing, phrasing, and the warm textures he achieves from the Academy of Ancient Music are models of Mozart style. He is sensitive to every mood and nuance of this lovely score. With the music glorious, the singing and orchestral playing sheer delight, this CD is a joy from start to finish.

BACH’S VIOLIN CONCERTOS

Bach’s two solo violin concertos, in A Minor (BWV 1041) and E Minor (BWV 1042) and his double violin concerto (BWV 1043) appear in fine performances, together with a double violin concerto (BWV 1060), often heard in its guise as a concerto for violin and oboe. Andrew Manze directs the Academy of Ancient Music, plays the solo violin and is partnered in the two double concertos by Rachel Podger. The disc, Harmonia Mundi 907155, offers enduring pleasure. Manze’s conducting is marvelously vital, the fast movements bursting with energy, freshness and spontaneity, the slow movements beautifully lyrical.There is absolutely nothing routine about these genuinely exciting, movingly expressive performances. The solo violin players are both expert at their tasks. The use of original instruments adds authenticity, and the sound of these instruments is, for once, a sensual delight. The phrasing throughout is exemplary — the slow movement of the E Major solo concerto, for example, poised and unsentimental. A fine production throughout, this CD is strongly recommended.

SZYMANOWSKI’S KING ROGER

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) is the preeminent Polish composer of the first half of the twentieth century. Born to a family of landed gentry, he was steeped in an atmosphere of high culture, with all four of his siblings following artistic pursuits. His early exposure to the music of Wagner shaped his esthetic activities for years to come. All of the music he wrote before 1914 is in the tradition of German Romanticism, his orchestral works much influenced by Wagner and Strauss both in the shaping of their melody and in their distinctly chromatic harmony. These early works tended to use polyphonic elements in expanded structures and favored a thick, massive sound. During the First World War, however, Szymanowski developed a new musical idiom of great originality which replaced the earlier massive sonority with a softer, more differentiated one and replaced tonal harmony with the use of polar centers. A new coloristic treatment of sound appeared, influenced by both the impressionism of Debussy and the expressionism of Scriabin, but still using the orchestration of the late Romantic period. The music of this period was characterized by an extraordinary intensity of expression. Szymanowski had traveled to the Mediterranean from 1908 to 1914, and his exposure to new influences in Italy, Sicily and North Africa was responsible for this much more sensual style. His newly acquired passion for the Islamic world and ancient Greece was culturally, musically and undoubtedly sexually liberating. King Roger, begun in 1918 and not finished until 1924, reflects these sources.

Szymanowski had grown up at Tymoszówka, his family’s estate in the Ukraine which was then part of Russia. During the Russian Revolution, Tymoszówka was pillaged, and Szymanowski left without his family fortune, having to build a new life in the chaotic post-war period. The difficulties he faced at this time shaped a highly charged work of probing moral complexity. King Roger is a reworking of Euripides’ The Bacchae, dealing with the eternal struggle between Apollo and Dionysus, “between the powers of reason, balance and civilisation on the one hand, and on the other, the powers of instinct, sexuality and the unconscious,” as the accompanying notes to the exciting EMI Classics recording (7243 56823 2 1) observe. It is a stunningly opulent work, with voluptuously beautiful, subtly textured writing for orchestra, chorus and solo voices, intensely dramatic at times, meltingly lyrical at others — a rich panoply of sound, deeply moving in its all too brief length — the opera lasts less than ninety minutes. In this powerful recording, Thomas Hampson sings King Roger, Elzbieta Szmytka is Queen Roxana, Philip Langridge is Edrisi, Roger’s adviser, and Ryszard Minkiewicz is the Shepherd. Simon Rattle conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and the City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus.

Inspired by his Sicilian sojourn, Szymanowski tells the story of King Roger II, who was crowned in 1130. As the opera opens, Roger’s balanced world has been invaded by the mysterious appearance of a Shepherd who seductively preaches a new sensual god. There is clearly a strong homoerotic attraction that draws Roger to the Shepherd. Roger is horrified by the fear that surrendering to the temptations of the Shepherd might destroy his life. The attempt to resolve this inner conflict gives life to the opera, though the resolution is an ambiguous one. The performance is dramatically charged, with Hampson superbly conveying first the power of Roger, then his initial rejection of the Shepherd’s religion as well as his painful anguish when he is torn between the two worlds of Apollo and Dionysus. Szmytka is perfect as Roxana, floating Szymanowski’s high lying soprano line beautifully and in complete control of the florid coloratura of the rôle , particularly beautiful in her plea to Roger to show mercy to the Shepherd. Minkiewicz is a fine, poetic Shepherd, though at a few moments when he sings full throat the voice becomes edgy. Langridge as Edrisi, Jadwiga Rappé as the Deaconess and Robert Gierlach as the Archbishop offer fine support. Rattle’s conducting is masterly, with the luscious textures of the orchestral writing beautifully conveyed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which Rattle has molded into a first rate ensemble. Together they capture equally the immense Byzantine power of the opening scene as well as the subtle exoticism of the Shepherd’s entreaties. The voluptuous, complex orchestral writing in this highly original score shines in Rattle’s exciting, subtle performance which has been recorded in superb sound. It repays repeated listening as well as careful following with the superb libretto by Szymanowski and his young cousin, the poet Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. The text and music beautifully illuminate each other, the music absolutely bewitching as the opera moves inexorably forward.This is certainly the finest recording yet of King Roger.

As a bonus, the second CD offers the Symphony No. 4 dating from 1932, and radically different in feeling and texture from the opera. After composing King Roger, Szymanowski’s style underwent a metamorphosis. The liberation of Poland profoundly affected Szymanowski, making him take on a great sense of responsibility for the future of Polish music. He now felt strongly that the folk music of the country should provide the stimulus for a national music of high quality. This should not be misunderstood — Szymanowski did not identify Polish national music with specific folk music. Rather, he wanted to deploy the ethnic features that, for example, Stravinsky had employed in Petrouchka, The Rite of Spring and Les Noces, retaining national characteristics in music of much broader range. In this task, which Szymanowski took up in the twenties, he found rich inspiration in the music native to the Tatra mountain people of Poland.

International recognition came to Szymanowski, though the conservatism of Polish musical society was frustrating to him. King Roger was staged in Warsaw (1926), Duisburg (1928), and Prague (1932). Numerous high distinctions and appointments to various international societies, along with offers to direct the conservatories of Cairo and Warsaw, came his way. He chose the Warsaw post as a way of bringing fresh strength to Polish music education, though the persistent conservatism of critics and conservatory staff were sources of great personal stress and eventually forced Szymanowski’s resignation in 1932. Now left without a regular income, he chose to resort to a series of public performances of his own compositions, both as a source of income and to disseminate his music. His piano technique was not quite adequate to such works as his sonatas, the piano cycle Metopes and his Masques, so that he decided to compose a Fourth Symphony with a concertante piano part which he would perform.

The change in Szymanowski’s style that began in the early 1920s led to a retreat from the use of folk music in the 1930s and to works of leaner texture, greater simplicity and more incisive rhythm. The Fourth Symphony is a fine exemplar of this newer style. Subtitled “Sinfonia Concertante,” it is neo-Baroque in conception and lacks the dense chromaticism of his earler music, with echoes of Prokofiev and Bartók manifest in Andsnes’ vigorous, fleet performance. The music has immediate appeal, though it is not “symphonic” in density. Rattle and Andsnes provide a fresh, vital account, rounding out a release of great merit. King Roger in particular strikes me as one of the twentieth century’s great contributions to opera.