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Recital Media Review Print

Reconsidering [the Vast Majority of] Robert Schumann's Songs

November 25, 2021 - Raleigh, NC:

Robert Schumann (1810-56): Alle Lieder* & Clara Schumann (1819-96): (3) Lieder once attributed to Robert Schumann. Christian Gerhaher, baritone, & Gerold Huber, piano, with additional contributions from sopranos Anett Fritsch, Julia Kleiter, Christina Landshamer, Sibylla Rubens, & Camilla Tilling; mezzo-sopranos Stefanie Irányi & Wiebke Lehmkuhl, tenor Martin Mitterrutzner, baritone Andreas Burkhart, & James Cheung, piano. Sony 19439780112. © 2021. 11 CDs, TT 10 hours, 56 minutes. C.$80, depending on where one looks – available from all the usual suspects.

This stunning new collection presents Schumann's songs arrayed more or less in order of publication but grouped in convenient programs that facilitate listening. Because Schumann's Lieder output came in large spurts that today we might attribute to obsessive-compulsive endeavors (or even manic behavior), they lend themselves to categorization. Here, the first six CDs are devoted to early works centering on the composer's "first year of song" (nominally 1840); the remaining five CDs encompass the "second year of song" (nominally 1849). This works well on a number of levels, including providing far greater variety than one might anticipate, particularly abetted by the involvement of so many vocalists in the project. There are two principal shortcomings here: the collection does not in fact include "Alle Lieder," instead omitting numerous works (if the comprehensive listing published in New Grove in 1980 remains viable), and not only early pieces and fragments; let us hope that Gerhaher will at some point record the remaining material as a supplement to this valuable set. And alas, the substantial booklet does not include translations of the texts, instead referring listeners to the Internet where virtually all of these poems may be read in English (or a preferred language). This is of course true, but also inconvenient, so (here's hoping) perhaps Sony will at some point create a single online resource reflecting this set's contents in the order presented.

The accompanying booklet is 215 pages and in two languages (German and English), consisting of track lists, texts, indices, performer biographies, and important introductory articles by the principal singer himself and by musicologist Laurenz Lütteken. The undertaking was sponsored in part by the Robert Schumann Research Center in Düsseldorf and the International Song Centre Heidelberg, and is a co-production with BR Klassik (Bavarian Radio). To state the obvious, this project is the culmination of a lifetime of study of Schumann by the principal singer, a baritone of prodigious artistry whose voice seems ideal for this music and whose projection, diction, and attention to detail consistently impress. At no point do mannerisms intrude here – what you get is the music, served with astonishing fidelity by a consummate singer, admirably accompanied throughout by a true pianistic poet. And that diction! It's mostly so very clear that the German texts may not be needed at all by listeners reasonably conversant in that language.** Bravo tutti!

So what have we here? Basically all the essential works for solo voice, duet, and ensemble by Robert Schumann (with a few pieces composed by Clara), all magnificently performed and recorded. Even the most fanatical collectors are unlikely to have gathered all this music after years of search, so to have these scores so wonderfully presented and so readily accessible is indeed very special. And the price is right. I heartily recommend that lovers of German Romantic song acquire this set ASAP, while it is available at its more-than-fair market price.

As a long-time collector, I have amassed "complete" songs by numerous composers, from Beethoven to the present, but for some reason not Schumann. I am not sure why, but his personality and mental instability surely influenced my choices. Thus I wound up with about two-thirds of his Lieder, over time, in various releases, including some historical ones (with HMV's eight-Lp set of Brahms and Schumann [RLS 1547003] taking pride of place; the 100 Schumann songs it contains would fit nicely on three CDs if they were reissued). Readers of this review are likely to have recordings of established favorites from among the better-known cycles and groups; these are likely to remain touchstones even in the light of Sony's new set. But in almost every instance, the new recordings take their places alongside the best "historical" discs. No, I wouldn't want to give up Aksel Schiøtz in Dichterliebe, Janet Baker in Frauenliebe und -leben and Liederkreis (Op. 39), Elly Ameling in Lieder-Album für die Jugend, Lotte Lehmann and Lauritz Melchior in (some of) the duets, Hermann Prey's major contributions, or some of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's (understanding that he sang too much for too long with sometimes diminishing returns – his early recordings are his best ones); these are important installments in the Schumann song archives many of us know.*** But the new set more than holds its own in virtually every instance, and there's so much more beyond the "knowns."

There's magic in hearing the complete Myrthen, appropriately delivered by singers of both genders, and both sets of Spanish songs, duets, and ensembles (immediately becoming personal favorites). It's wonderful to hear the complete run (four volumes) of Romanzen und Balladen, all of the Lieder und Gesänge, all of the Wilhem Meister songs, and all of the late songs to poems by Nikolaus Lenau (one of whose texts inspired Strauss' Don Juan) – and so very much more. There are myriad treasures here to discover – I say that advisedly, as it's surely a safe bet that even whole lifetimes of attendance at recitals would not have yielded opportunities to hear all of them in concert, so this set is far more precious than a big Lieder evening, even on disc, might otherwise have been. Invest in it – if you like German songs, you will not regret your purchase – I guarantee it!

Schumann was of course first a pianist (and also a critic...), and he married a pianist, too, so it's only natural that so many of these songs have gorgeous keyboard parts, superbly played in this set by Huber on several fine-sounding modern pianos (uncredited) – it would be fun to work through the piano music again; hearing the songs alongside contemporaneous pieces would prove richly rewarding. We can't crawl into Schumann's psyche, but many critics are viewed as crazy and more than a few of us have had various issues along the way. It was therefore surprising (to me) that so many of these songs are so very restrained and so stable – there's little evidence of any influence other than the poems themselves and Schumann's astonishingly facile emotional involvement in them, resulting in songs that are in many instances artistic improvements on the lyrics, even lyrics by the very greatest poets (though not all are comparably good).

There are many fine sources for more information, but I particularly recommend Schiøtz's The Singer and His Art for an insider's articulate view and Lorraine Gorrell's The Nineteenth-Century German Lied for context and its fresh scholarship.

What's not here are the bigger theatrical works, including the single opera and the larger vocal works with orchestral accompaniment. (Here is the works list.) Fortunately most of these more substantial pieces are readily available in fine performances online, and for the convenience of readers I will list some of them below, with URLs for renditions on YouTube:

Das Paradies und die Peri (oratorio), Op.50 (1841-3) (video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zV7lMykY-A

Scenes from Goethe's Faust (oratorio), WoO 3 (1844-53): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13J4d3zDwEY

Genoveva (opera), Op. 81 (1847-9) (video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzmFe3Pxrfs

Requiem für Mignon, Op. 98b (1849): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCCvVO8FaTQ

Der Rose Pilgerfahrt (oratorio), Op. 112 (1851) – not conveniently available in a single YouTube file, but here is the score: https://imslp.org/wiki/Der_Rose_Pilgerfahrt%2C_Op.112_(Schumann%2C_Robert); and also see this playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S8Lo2MVKrg&list=OLAK5uy_nJWifi05tOzFLpoZ1ujKemTMPSpzPxwHc

Manfred (overture and incidental music), Op. 115 (1848-9): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaWey_vuAo0

Mass in C minor, Op. Posth. 147 (1852): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTCArOK2qJE

Requiem, Op. Posth. 148 (1852): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HnMIhiAg5Y

These are all worth exploring in conjunction with the songs.

*Titles in the Sony set follow the catalog of Margit McCorkle. Sony markets this set as "all of Schumann's 299 songs" but as noted, three are now attributed to Clara and two of the 297 total tracks are piano pieces (in which the second pianist is heard) associated with the Spanische Liebeslieder. Math was never my strong suit, but that looks to me like 292 by Robert.

**Here are some online references to translations:

***In the new set, Dichterliebe is sung by Gerhaher, Frauenliebe by Kleiter, Liederkreis (both sets) by Gerhaher, and the Album für die Jugend is shared by Landshamer, Gerhaher, and Burkhart; the duets are given by Rubens and Mitterrutzner.