A Wonderful Exploration of Frauenliebe und –leben and Much More Besides

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, interspersed with various songs by other composers: Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano); Malcolm Martineau (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 24.3.2016. (CC)

Susan_Graham_Credit_B_Ealovega Smaller
Susan Graham (c) B Ealovega

Schumann Frauenliebe und -leben, Op.42

interspersed with:

Grieg, Haugtussa, Op.67 – No. 4, “Møte”
Strauss, Seitdem dein Aug’ in meines schaute, Op. 17/1
Dankworth, Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Fauré, Chanson d’amour, Op. 27/1
Rangström, Fem dikter – No. 3, “Melodi”
Rorem, O you whom I often and silently come
Grieg Jeg elsker dig, Op. 5/3
Faure, Au bord de l’eau, Op. 8/1
Mahler, Das Knaben Wunderhorn – “Rheinlegendchen”
Turina, Poema en forma da canciones, Op.19 – No. 4, “Los dos miedos”
Schumann, Myrten, Op.25“Lied der Braut I & II”
Ravel, Mélodies populaires grecques – No. 5, “Tout gai!”
Duparc, Phidylé
Debussy, Chanson de Bilitis No. 2, “La chevelure”
Tchaikovsky, Cradle Song, Op. 16/1
Poulenc, La courte paille: No. 6, “Le carafon”
Strauss, Wiegenliedchen, Op. 49/3
Berlioz, Les Nuits d’été, Op.7: No. 4, “Absence”
Granados, Tonadillas en un estilo antiguo: “La maja dolorosa I”
Quilter, Shakespeare Songs, Op.30: No. 3, How should I your true love know?

Encores: Hahn, A Chloris; Rodgers/Hammerstein (arr. Rob Mathes), The King and I: “Hello, Young Lovers”

What a treat this was! The programming was a delight, born from an idea which set out to explore the ramifications of each of the songs from Schumann’s great song-cycle, Frauenliebe und -leben. The Schumann songs started each group in the first half, but were the final constituent of the second-half groups, enabling the evening to begin and end with Schumann.

We began, in fact, with an explanation of the evening from the very engaging Susan Graham, explaining this was a “journey” that takes in no less than eight languages and which “explodes” out Schumann’s songs. That it was handled in programming terms with such astonishing sensitivity and imagination was only the starting point for the cornucopia of musical delights this evening presented. The starting point was of course Seit ich ihn gesehen, which showcased Graham’s rich, beautiful voice; not to mention Martineau’s impeccable accompaniment (the placing of the final chords a particular delight). Around this song, Grieg’s Møte (“Meeting”), an 1895 setting of words by Arne Garborg from Haugtusa, Op. 67, a tender song that speaks of similar worshipping from afar, but with a wider emotional range: Graham was in full cry one moment, then finding new plateau of peace the next. The warm Straussian glow of Seitdem dein Aug’ in meines schaute was the perfect antidote.

Each set of songs was carefully delineated in the programme, its heading the title of the Schumann song. Graham’s impetuous way with Er, der herrlischte von allem found the difficult ornaments to the line emerging perfectly naturally. John Dankworth’s Shakespeare setting Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day? was the beautifully done response, its contrast to the Schumann perfectly judged, followed on by the Gallic expansiveness of Fauré’s flowing Chanson d’amour and a welcome appearance of music by Ture Rangström in his 1917 Melodi (possibly known to some via Anne Sophie von Otter’s recording on DG). The piano accompaniment is hugely ornate, and was beautifully done by Martineau; a thirty-second carefree Rorem insertion led to a little stroke of genius: Schumann’s Ich kann’s nicht fassen led without break into Grieg’s tender Jeg elsker dig, itself a lovely foil to Fauré’s fragrant Au bord de l’eau.

One of the most beautiful of Schumann’s songs anywhere in his output is surely Du Ring an meinem Finger. Graham’s relishing of Schumann’s endless melody, the blossoming of her voice and the final lines coming very close to Sprechgesang left a wider-ranging experience than one might associate here. The obvious ring companion song, possibly, is Mahler’s Rheinlegendchen, and here it was; this was where Graham’s story-telling abilities really came into their own. It was a joy; the move to the Spanish accent of Turina seemed an interesting tonic. It was nice to end the first half on three Schumann songs plus one by Ravel: a slightly restrained Helft mir, ihr Schwestern from the evening’s main offering, followed by two excerpts from Myrthen, both perfectly in style, before Ravel’s bright Tout gai!

One of the effects of this exploration of Schumann was that very internationalism that necessitated Graham’s octolinguistic display. So it was that the second half began with France: Duparc’s Phidylé, Martineau’s accompaniment gently pulsing, supporting Graham’s line, spun like a thread. The darker side of France led to Schumann: the eroticism of Debussy’s Le chevelure from Chansons de Bilitis next to Süsser Freund, du blackest, taken slowly here, with Graham relishing every moment. Then it was on to Poulenc’s jolly Carafon, Tchaikovsky’s delicious Cradle Song, a typically gentle-textured Strauss Wiegenlied before Schumann’s rapid-fire An meinem Herzen found us on what by now felt like home turf. Schumann had become our anchor, our rock.

If Berlioz’s Absence loses its sense of ecstasy in its piano version, Graham yet captured the beauty of the cries of “Reviens!”. The ensuing juxtaposition of Granados and Quilter was an interesting one. The former’s La maja dolorosa I was simply beautiful (Graham’s low register held out excellently), while Quilter brought us Shakespeare for the second time in his How should I your true love know? Its dolorous demeanor was the perfect preparation for the final Schumann song, Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan. Martineau’s opening was a real stab of emotional pain. It’s probably not the done thing to complain that Graham sang “Toseschlaf” as opposed to “Todesschlaf”, especially given the true stillness of the end, and Martineau’s exquisite postlude, which reintroduces the cycle’s opening, now devastatingly recontextualised.

There were two encores: some lovely Hahn, and a terrific arrangement of Hello Young Lovers (how fitting!) by Rob Matthes – an arrangement that’s been previously showcased, albeit in orchestral garb, at the Proms in 2002. It’s terrific fun, while simultaneously showing a great deal of sophistication. Precisely the same could be said of the evening as a whole.

Colin Clarke