United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – The Schumann Project: Joan Rodgers (soprano), Dietrich Henschel (baritone), Sholto Kynoch (piano). Holywell Music Room, Oxford 17.10.2016. (CR)
Robert Schumann: Drei Gedichte von Emanuel Geibel, Op.30; Sonntag, Op.79 No.6; Die Waise, Op.79 No.14; Weihnachtslied, Op.79 No.16; Das Glück, Op.79, No.15; Die Schwalben, Op.79 No.20; Myrthen, Op.25
Clara Schumann: Volkslied; Der Abendstern; Walzer
No conspectus of Schumann’s output of Lieder, such as this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival is undertaking, could possibly ignore the inspiration of his muse and, later, wife Clara Wieck. Entitled ‘A Wedding Gift’, this recital put that relationship centre stage by featuring songs from both of them, and focusing in particular upon Robert’s longest cycle, Myrthen, written as a wedding present for Clara. Their parts were taken, as it were, by Dietrich Henschel and Joan Rodgers, and whether by accident or design, their vocal maturity brought gravitas and authority to the ardour of youthful love celebrated in the poetry and music of the settings programmed here.
In the Three Tales of Emanuel Geibel to open, Henschel projected the music powerfully, but still conveyed a sense of humour in ‘Der Page’ and caught the youthful swagger of ‘Der Hidalgo’. Less tension would perhaps have been more suitable for the carefree story of the boy with the magic horn in the first song, but again Henschel certainly did not neglect to delineate the trajectory of the whole, starting with a lilting ebullience and ending with a darker, introspective tone as the boy is called away through the crimson sunset to faraway lands.
The greater delicacy of musical style in the three songs by Clara Schumann brought out a radiant vulnerability from Joan Rodgers, particularly in ‘Der Abendstern’. Only in the selection of Robert’s songs from his Opus 79 set did a slight brittleness in the quality of her vibrato become more apparent, and also as she came under pressure in the higher notes. ‘Weihnachtslied’ was more refulgent on that account than ‘Sonntag’, and happily the approach that she and Sholto Kynoch at the piano took by pushing on in the sad song about an orphan girl (‘Der Waise’) avoided sentimentality. The darting around of the two vocal parts and pianist, redolent of the metaphorical flitting about of the bird in the duet ‘Das Glück’ (‘Fortune’), was spot on, and could not fail to raise a smile in the audience, whilst the other avian duet ‘Die Schwalben’ (‘The Swallows’) was poised and mellow.
Rodgers and Henschel provided an effective contrast to each other in their sharing out of the songs within the Myrthen cycle. Both tended to be more expressive and nuanced here than in the first half of the concert, thereby forging the disparate selection of songs into a coherent exploration of love not in its first, precarious stages but, like Beethoven’s Fidelio, as ‘married love’. Again, although Rodgers sounded steely at climaxes, there was plenty of variety within her performances to make this a compelling interpretation, just as Henschel may have over-projected on occasion but did not fundamentally obscure the meaning he sought to convey.
After Rodgers’s energetic launch to the cycle with the very well-known ‘Widmung’, she sustained a delightful narrative in ‘Der Nussbaum’ by proceeding from hopeful aspiration to somnolent contentment, turned to a teasing sense of expectation in ‘Jemand’ (‘Somebody’), then cooed and coaxed with ‘Der Lotosblume’ and the cerebral puzzle of ‘Rätschel’ (‘Riddle’).
Henschel pointedly and assertively contrasted ‘Jemand’ with the setting in German of Robert Burns’s ‘Nobody’ (‘Niemand’), but underlined that with the same sense of humour which also accrued to delightful effect in his witty depiction of the increasingly intoxicated, wine-drinking loner of Goethe’s ‘Sitz ich allein’ from the West-Östlicher Divan. There was notable contrast between the two singers in the juxtaposition of a pair of Burns settings in this cycle, first in the defiant patriotism of ‘The Highlander’s Farewell’, and then in the tenderness of Rodgers’s account of the ‘Highland Lullaby’ to follow. Henschel drew an unintentional irony in his rather militaristic, forthright characterisation of ‘Free Spirit’ (Goethe’s ‘Frei Sinn’) where one would surely expect manifest lyrical flexibility. But elsewhere his consummate ability to sustain a concentrated emotional atmosphere paid dividends in the sullen ‘Aus den „Hebräischen Gesängen“’ (comparable to Schubert’s ‘Der Doppelgänger’ in its unremitting dark tone, unexpectedly lightened by a final major chord) and the two gondoliers’ songs towards the end of the cycle.
Sholto Kynoch’s masterly accompaniments on the piano took their place as an equal partner to the story-telling, not merely supporting the voices passively. Although the piano part was often to the fore, it did not overpower the singers’ role, but provided additional colour and narrative dimensions. Apart from the instances already mentioned, it is worth singling out the sense of haunting unity which Kynoch gave to Clara Schumann’s ‘Volkslied’ in its introduction and coda, just as in the ‘Highland Lullaby’ of Myrthen he evoked the timeless, transcendent spirit of the world of folksong in the wandering unison lines allotted to the piano. Together the three performers offered the audience an experience not of pruriently eavesdropping upon the intimacy and sincerity of the relationship between Clara and Robert, but of sharing in the vital, human warmth of what they were able to articulate through their joint passion for music.