A Truly Wonderful Evening of Schumann Lieder

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann: Christiane Karg (soprano); Christian Gerhaher (baritone); Gerold Huber (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 8.2.2016. (CC)

Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, Op. 98a

Romanzen und Balladen, Op. 64

Myrthen, Op. 25

In a nice change from the (very welcome) onslaught of Schubert Lieder at the Wigmore, here was a whole evening of Schumann. Interestingly, my last encounter with Christiane Karg was in that very series, and a very successful evening it was, too. For her Schumann outing, she shared the Wigmore stage with Singer in Residence Christian Gerhaher.

The Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, Op. 98a, dates from the Summer of 1849 (as does the related Requiem für Mignon, another tribute to Goethe). The cycle begins with one of Schumann’s best known songs, ‘Kennst du das Land’, heard here in a performance of magnificent grasp by Karg. Initially, it was the technical aspects of her performance that impressed, notably the superbly clean slurs heard in the first stanza; but when she used a slightly breathy, even smoky sound for the second stanza, we were fully into Schumann’s world. The ever-sensitive Gerold Huber is a pianist to be reckoned with. A bona fide third character on the platform and no mere shrinking violet accompanist, his touch and his harmonic awareness regularly illuminated Schumann’s terrain. The dramatic swell in the third stanza of this first song was beautifully calibrated by both Karg and Huber. Karg, too, could bring delight, as in ‘Singet nicht in Trauertönen’, her tripping-along phrases underlined by Huber’s superb, dancing staccato. If there seemed a touch too much vibrato to Karg’s ‘So laßt mich scheinen’, this remained fine singing.

Gerhaher is an imposing vocal presence, and he can sing with real strength when required, but there was the impression that it was Huber who best grasped Schumann’s mode of composition in ‘Ballade des Harfners’. That said, Gerhaher has the ability to deliver Schumann’s starkest creations in harrowing fashion, as was the case in ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß’, where a blanched tone led him at times remarkably close to Sprechstimme.

The two singers projected Schumann’s gorgeous Op. 98a cycle as a beautiful, burnished entity. The Romanzen und Balladen, Op. 64, brings together songs from 1847 plus the ?1841 ‘Tragödie’; all are settings of either Möricke or Heine.  The first two songs, both to texts by Möricke, were taken by Karg. The march rhythms of ‘Die Soldatenbraut’ were perfectly projected by Huber; it was in the second, ‘Das verlassne Mägdelein’, that delicacy balanced with the utmost depth of emotion in perfect proportion brought about a highlight of the evening. The song’s wonderfully inconclusive close led to Gerhaher’s opening to ‘Trägodie’, a tripartite Heine setting whose central panel, ‘Es fiel ein Reif in der Frühlingsnacht’, exuded on this occasion a positively Mahlerian sense of desolation. The final part, ‘Auf ihrem Grab’, has both singers participating; here, beautifully. What was nice, too, was that Huber could project the sense of the piano’s interweaving lines mirroring that of the singers’.

It was the big, 26-song cycle Myrthen, Op. 25 (1840) that took up the whole of the second half. Rather sweetly, this cycle was published on Schumann’s wedding day (it was his gift to his bride – and what a romance that was!). It calls on a diverse range of poets, from Robert Burns and Byron through to Goethe and Rückert, amongst others. Although it is not Schumann’s best known cycle by any means, it contains a nice surprise for pianophiles by beginning with ‘Widmung’, which (Liszt famously and wonderfully later transcribed for solo piano. Both Karg and Huber were magnificently impetuous in their delivery; one could hardly wish for a better start. Gerhaher’s ‘Freisinn’, which follows immediately, was underpinned by superbly sprightly articulation from Huber. Gerhaher seemed even more at home in this cycle: ‘Talismane’ (a Goethe setting) showed just how glorious his voice can be at full tilt; the contrast with Karg’s rendition of ‘Lied der Suleika’ was maximal, the flow of this latter song as sweet as can be imagined. Karg’s performance of the gentle ‘Hochländisches Wiegenlied’ was little short of miraculous, the upward slurs seeming to imply hope. Gerhaher it was who had the last word; as both he and Huber found great stillness in the finale, ‘Zum Schluß’.

Christiane Karg can bring magic to even the most innocuous songs. Such was the case for ‘Der Nussbaum’ with its über-sweet initial snippet of a piano phrase, deliciously rendered here. When it came to the line beginning “Sie flüstern” – “they whisper” – she did indeed almost whisper the phrase, but more, she did it as if to scoop up the audience into her confidences.

Throughout, pianist Gerold Huber was astonishing – and I’m referring to throughout the concert, not just over the extended canvas of Myrthen. From the cheeky (‘Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch im Divan I’) to the deepest Romantic yearnings, he seemed perfectly attuned to them all.

This was a truly wonderful evening.

Colin Clarke