Marlis Petersen, soprano; Anke Vondung, mezzo-soprano; Werner Güra, tenor; Konrad Jarnot, bass-baritone; Christoph Berner and Camillo Radicke, piano
Robert Schumann's celebrated "year of song" was 1840, shortly after his marriage to Clara Wieck: the year of Dichterliebe and his other most famous song cycles. But 1849, when the Schumanns fled the threat of violent political unrest in Dresden and settled in villages outside the city, was another year of prolific song composition — and a strikingly rich year, to judge by the 26 songs in three cycles on the CD at hand. Perhaps these songs aren't so well known because each cycle is a mix of solos, duets and quartets, with piano or piano four-hands accompaniment, rather than the single-voice cycles of 1840 that remain a staple of lieder recitals. But as the present disc demonstrates, these are ravishing songs: sometimes playful, more often melancholy, always inventive. They may be well known to song specialists, but I was delighted to come upon them for the first time, in these enthusiastic and well-recorded performances.
Two of the cycles are based on poems from a book of Spanish "Folk Songs and Romances" in German translation, while the third — the Minnelieder — uses poems of Friedrich Rückert. It must be said (not in criticism but simple observation) that the Spanische lieder don't sound very Iberian: one song in bolero rhythm seems more like a polonaise, and it's startling to come across a lyric about lovers fleeing across the deep waters of the Guadalquivir — surely the Danube is meant? But Schumann provides a rich Middle-European sound-world to please the ear. The Minnespiel songs, sensibly placed between the two Spanish sets on the CD, have a somewhat different overall mood: CD booklet annotator Roman Hinke hears more "restraint... inwardness and intimacy." ("Minne" is the old German word for courtly love.)
Incidentally, the Spanische Liebeslieder have the same combination of vocal quartet and piano four-hands as Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes of 1870 and 1875, but for those who find the latter works a bit cloyingly sweet after awhile in their harmonies and waltz rhythms, the Schumann cycle will surely be refreshing, with its five solo songs, a prelude and interlude for pianists alone, two duets, and one quartet to end the work. (Those wanting to make a direct comparison of Schumann's cycle with his friend's work could check out harmonia mundi's recording of the Brahms with the same singers and players, except for a different mezzo-soprano: HMC 901945.)
There are too many songs on the CD for comment on each one, but I could single out some favorites. The Spanisches Liederspiel opens with "Erste Begegnung," a lively duet for soprano and mezzo in close harmony and perhaps a gypsy flavor (more Hungarian than Andalusian); it's followed by a warmly sentimental "Intermezzo" for the two men. The fourth song, "In der Nacht," is one of the most gorgeous songs on the whole CD: it starts out as a soprano solo, with the tenor joining in for the reprise of the single verse, and has an especially striking piano accompaniment (no surprise in a Schumann song). "Ich bin geliebt," in which the quartet of singers scolds gossips about love, would be a playful conclusion to the cycle, but Schumann added an "appendix," a bass-baritone "novelty" song called "Der Contrabandiste" ("I am the smuggler, and afraid of no one, so let's be merry!"), which is fun in its own way. The solo low male voice gets the spotlight again in one of the best songs of the Spanisches Liebeslieder, the Romance "Flutenreicher Ebro," in which the lover asks the flowing stream, the pearls of dew on the grass, the poplars and the birds if his beloved is thinking of him when she walks among them. Here the sparkling piano accompaniment has a very Schubertian flow, while the melody is utterly Schumannesque.
The quartet of singers is a distinguished one with important careers in Europe, and soprano Marlis Petersen scored rave reviews last spring for her Ophélie and Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera. All the same, while all four singers display many felicities in their voices and phrasings, and blend very skillfully in the duets and quartets, I didn't find any of them truly outstanding as soloists. Christoph Berner, the accompanist for the Spanisches Liederspiel, is quite fine, but Camillo Radicke, in the Minnespiel, is extraordinary. His controlled impulsiveness (if that is not a contradiction), his sense of melodic line and sensitivity to his singers' pulse make him a true partner in these songs. For evidence, listen especially to the two tenor solos, the enraptured "Meine Töne still und heiter" and the more deeply entranced "Mein schöner Stern, ich bitte dich." As expected, the two pianists work perfectly well together in the Spanische Liebeslieder to conclude the disc.
Harmonia mundi provides first-rate sound for its performers, a realistic ambiance with the piano never dominating the singers but never unduly recessed either. Besides a valuable essay on the songs and their historical context, the booklet also gives us the lyrics and literal translations.