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The best recordings of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben

Natasha Loges explores the finest recordings of Schumann's 19th-century song cycle, Frauenliebe und -leben, that vividly traces the ups and downs of love’s tortured course

Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben best recordings

Recordings  of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben have emerged steadily since mezzo-soprano Julia Culp and Otto Bake’s historic 1909 account, the most recent being fellow mezzo Elīna Garanča’s with Malcolm Martineau in November 2020.

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Rich, lower voices such as the magnificent Elisabeth Grümmer (with Aribert Reimann in 1963) or Helen Watts (with Geoffrey Parsons from 1966) bring maturity and complexity to the character. The 59-year-old Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, in 1974, offers a persuasively manic performance; Marian Anderson is downright heart-breaking in 1946

What’s the best recording of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben?

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)

Eugene Asti (piano)

Chandos CHAN10492

Sarah Connolly and Eugene Asti, who have a lengthy artistic partnership, create a believable, thoughtful and sympathetic character in their 2008 account.

Connolly presents no naïve young girl, but a tender-hearted life companion whose voice lingers lovingly on the curves of the melody, softens on each corner, fills each vowel and savours each consonant. Her delivery of the opening words ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ (‘Since I saw him’) conveys wonder at the protagonist’s own transformation; but the second song, ‘Er, der Herrlichste von Allen’ (‘He, the most wonderful of all’) is a clear-sighted paean, rather than a giddy fan-tune. The wedding-morning song, ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ evokes true sisterhood rather than an excitable hen party. Motherhood and then bereavement bring out still more layers of colour.

Asti matches her with a vast colouristic range, filling in the gaps in the poetry with his crisp staccato, twinkling arpeggios, deep octaves, silken legato and acute responsiveness to the character’s emotions. His postlude is a miracle of dignified restraint, sparing with pedal, each stark chord a distillation of loss bravely borne.

Above all, it is the choices of tempo which distinguish this recording. One structural weakness of the cycle is the over-hasty succession of life events: besottedness to bereavement in a brisk 23 minutes. Many accounts pit the slow songs against the fast ones, an effect which recalls Robert Schumann’s own life and personality, split unstably between the imagined characters of the melancholy Eusebius and exuberant Florestan.

This may be the stuff of romance, but not of marriage, motherhood and widowhood. Connolly’s and Asti’s measured approach allows us to evolve alongside the protagonist. It might be a stretch, but it is Clara Schumann, with her maturity, endurance, pathos and loyalty, that they seem to honour.

Three other great recordings of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben

Felicity Lott (soprano) and Angelika Kirchschlager
(mezzo-soprano)

(Hyperion CDA67563)

Recordings which are less precious about the cycle, and with more awareness of how Schumann expected his music to be performed, will appeal to a non-purist. No one surpasses Graham Johnson, whose consummate gift as pianist and programmer builds depth, space and reflection into the work. Here, he interleaves wordless performances of the songs into a long journey exploring the life and loves of a more three-dimensional woman than Chamisso’s cardboard cut-out. Kirchschlager and Lott sing with artistry, passion and playfulness.

Edith Mathis (soprano)

(DG 479 8337)

Known for her superb Mozart singing, Mathis’s technically superb soprano sound is a delight, virtuosically modulated throughout yet never cold. Her shaping of the vocal lines is exquisite. The extrovert songs, such as Nos 2 and 5, are especially pleasing, bright with energy without losing grace. Christoph Eschenbach generally keeps the piano quite restrained while Mathis sings, but beautifully matches her sweet, extrovert sound. The overall effect is polished and aristocratic, but still effective. 

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)

(Wigmore Hall Live WHLIVE0024)

Hunt Lieberson’s gloriously sincere performance coupled with Julius Drake’s responsive, vivid playing makes for a first-class account, without the borderline matronly tones of, say, Brigitte Fassbaender or Elena Gerhardt, wonderful though they are. Hunt Lieberson responds to every word, but binds the whole with her creamy legato sound, ranging from full-blooded utterance to a near whisper. Drake tenderly brings out often-overlooked inner voices in the piano, acting as the protagonist’s companion and consolation throughout. A devastatingly moving performance. 

And one to avoid…

Christa Ludwig is blessed with one of the most beautiful voices for this repertoire, yet here she sounds strangely robotic in the slow songs (‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ sounds uninterested), and rather aggressive in the fast ones. Though polished, in comparison with her sublime performances of Mahler and Brahms this 1976 performance.

Find out more about Robert Schumann and his works here

Read our reviews of the latest Robert Schumann recordings here

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