Schumann: Frauenliebe und -leben; Lieder, Op. 90

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COMPOSERS: Schumann
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Frauenliebe und -leben; Lieder, Op. 90
PERFORMER: Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano); Roger Vignoles (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901753
Frauenliebe und -leben always was a tricky one – and it doesn’t get easier with time. How to find a response to Schumann’s cycle of the love and life of girl, bride, wife, mother and widow without preconception, clichéd expression or maudlin sentimentality becomes more of a challenge the longer the catalogue grows. So it’s good to welcome a new recording that is fresh, honest, uncluttered and highly musically accomplished in its every phrase.

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As one might expect from a doyenne of the Baroque, Bernarda Fink’s performance is clear, clean,

and subtly shaped by shifting dynamics, rather than weighed down by overmuch rubato. Hers is a lithe, youthful mezzo, as deeply affecting in the sheer simplicity of ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’, as in the radiant heartbeat of ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’, or the easeful inflection of the intimate address of ‘Süsser Freund’. Roger Vignoles’s piano-playing seems to share her secrets, eavesdropping, recalling and reflecting, rather than directing.His is a less interventionist approach than that of Bengt Forsberg for

Anne Sofie von Otter (DG) – the closest comparison here in terms of voice, pacing and approach.

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The Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski offers one of the most beguiling soprano versions. But if it’s mezzo-soprano comparison you’re after (and the cycle is, somehow, a quite different creature in this voice) then, for me, the still-unsurpassed recording is that made by Janet Baker in 1976, in endlessly revelatory partnership with Daniel Barenboim. It has a sense of a barely glimpsed inner emotional life which can never be quite pinned down. Fink counterbalances this cycle with superb performances of the later, darker Op. 90 Lenau settings, and nine of Schumann’s best-loved songs. Hilary Finch