Schumann: Liederkreis, Op. 39; Dichterliebe; Funf Lieder, Op. 40

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COMPOSERS: Schumann
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Liederkreis, Op. 39; Dichterliebe; Funf Lieder, Op. 40
PERFORMER: Sebastian Bluth (baritone)Anita Keller (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.554219
In 1892, a marble statue of the dissident German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine was evicted from Frankfurt by order of the Kaiser. A century later, the poet Tony Harrison followed its fortunes from Germany to Corfu to France in a powerful film poem for BBC television called The Gaze of the Gorgon. ‘Banished from the Fatherland/With pen and Lieder in my hand,’ he wrote in those laconic couplets, The Lieder Schumann makes so touching/ Is in this manuscript I’m clutching’… And that was ‘Was will die einsame Tra’ne?’, one of the Myrthen cycle Schumann composed as a wedding present for his wife-to-be, Clara. Schumann’s equally intense artistic marriage to Heinrich Heine, the first poet he ever set, is celebrated in four new and multi-faceted recordings.

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The early Op. 24 Liederkreis, dedicated to Heine, was written during those heady days of Schumann’s engagement, and it may seem strange that the poems he chose are those in which Heine writes obsessively, even savagely, about unrequited love and the destructive power of women. But it was surely the quality of heightened

emotion, the feverish fluctuations of mood, with which Schumann so keenly empathised. And it is precisely that sense of ardour chilling in a second to disillusionment, of tenderness turning to pain, of self-pity combined with self-mockery, which is captured so thrillingly by the 25-year-old baritone Stephan Genz. Genz frames the cycle with a sense of breathless awe, from the restless waking dream of its opening to the quivering Liebeshauch, or breath of love, in the last line. He is a naturally fervent performer with a warm, immediately engaging baritone which can nevertheless harden into bitterness for the bloodletting anger of ‘Warte, warte wilder Schiffmann’, and into a sombre stoicism for the tiny penultimate song with its wry questioning so typical of Heine. Unworthy translations and somewhat undercharacterised piano-playing from Claar Ter Horst are slight drawbacks here; but these lunge Leiden (Young Sorrows) of Heine are inimitably eloquent in the voice of such a young performer.

Genz completes his disc with equally perceptive and moving performances of a selection of Schumann’s many Heine settings, including ‘Belsazar’, ‘Abends am Strand’ and the Three Tragedies.

Ian Bostridge brings a similarly ardent, intimate engagement to his performance of the Op. 24 Liederkreis, with an added sophistication which comes from both his own experience and from the piano-playing of Julius Drake, everywhere minutely and subtly attuned to the voice. Bostridge is particularly sensitive to Heine’s own innate musicalityand Schumann’s instinctive responses to it. As the lover wanders alone among the trees in the third song, Bostridge uses the self-echoing vowels woven into Schumann’s smooth melodic contours to create a long ache of sound, before dropping into a mesmeric half-voice for the whispered words of the birdsong. Heine’s dream-spectres are omnipresent, too: the carpenter banging away at his coffin, and the inner angst which draws from Bostridge in ‘Warte, warte’ the most blood-curdling yelp of pain on disc. Bostridge includes seven other Heine settings and, like Matthias Goerne, twins the Liederkreis with Schumann’s other great Heine setting, the Dichterliebe.

Goerne’s Liederkreis is surprisingly low-key. In place of the youthful ardour, a heavy pall of darkness hangs over the cycle. Indeed, despite Goerne’s beautifully focused baritone and noble phrasing, some of the songs even verge on the ponderous.

Goerne’s Dichterliebe is disappointing. It’s hard to believe that this is the same Goerne of those intense and visionary Schubert recordings, so one-dimensional is his singing here. That sense of emotional fluctuation in Heine’s words and Schumann’s melodic and harmonic inflection is lost in an unvaried solemnity of approach, not helped by the enclosed sound quality of the recording. Could it be that Goerne’s uncharacteristic lapses in concentration and inspiration are partly due to the heavy-handed accompanying of Vladimir Ashkenazy, whose relentless crashing at the keyboard in songs such as ‘Ich grolle nicht’ I found at times almost unbearable?

Bostridge’s Dichterliebe, on the other hand, really breathes the tremulous, scented air of the ‘wunderschonen Monat Mai’. A little spring in the words ‘sprangen’ and ‘sangen’ makes the sap rise; a pressing sigh breathes through the word ‘Seufzer’ and, again, Bostridge is particularly sensitive to the elusive voice of the dream consciousness. It is as if, as a non-native German speaker, his awareness of the language and its musical inflections is heightened. Certainly his performance of ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ is incomparably bleak.

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Another young German baritone, 29-year-old Sebastian Bluth, twins his Dichterliebe with Schumann’s later Liederkreis, the Op. 39, which sets the poetry of Eichendorff. Here, the combination of a somewhat tense, over-deliberate approach in a voice which can easily become forced under pressure, and a volatile piano accompaniment in a dry, ascetic acoustic is not entirely pleasant. Longer study, better coaching and more sensitive production is needed before Bluth’s Schumann can really bear comparison with the best.