Schumann Complete Lieder, Vol. 1
This disc launches Hyperion’s Schumann Lieder project as auspiciously as Dame Janet Baker’s recital opened their Complete Schubert Edition (10/88). As ever, Graham Johnson shows an unerring gift for matching singer and song. These are almost all late pieces, written between 1849 and 1852 under the shadow of depression and sickness; and their intense chromaticism can all too easily seem turbid and tortuous, their rhythms either overly square or overly complex. But, imaginatively supported by Johnson, Christine Schafer illuminates each of these songs with her pure, lucent timbre, her grace and breadth of phrase and her unselfconscious feeling for verbal meaning and nuance. The voice is an expressive, flexible lyric-coloratura (her repertoire encompasses Titania, Lucia di Lammermoor and Zerbinetta) capable of more veiled, crepuscular shades; she can spin a scrupulously even legato, integrates the high notes of, say, “Er ist’s” perfectly within the melodic line, and has the breath control to sustain the long phrases of “Requiem” with apparent ease.
Aided by Johnson’s lucid textures and uncommonly subtle feel for rubato and harmonic direction, Schafer avoids any hint of mawkishness in songs like “Meine Rose”, Op. 90 No. 2 (a lovely tender pianissimo for the final verse), “Madchen-Schwermut” (which pre-echoes the slow variation in the Scherzo of Schumann’s A major String Quartet) and “Abendlied”, where Schafer’s candid, touching performance transcends the music’s potential Biedermeier cosiness. Several songs here have been overshadowed or totally eclipsed by the settings by Schubert, Wolf or Brahms, and Schafer and Johnson do much to rehabilitate them: in “Der Gartner” (from Op. 107), for instance, the gardener’s hopeless adoration inspires a new glow and fullness in the tone, with Johnson cunningly clarifying the intricate cross-rhythms; another Morike song, “Das verlassene Magdlein” (on which Wolf closely modelled his setting) is moving in its simplicity and humility, with a quickening of intensity for the tragic realization at “plotzlich” and a blanched, desolate colour for the final verse, “Trane auf Trane dann”; and Schafer brings an exquisite wondering stillness to the Goethe “Nachtlied”, more disturbed and earthbound than Schubert’s sublime setting, but here, at least, scarcely less poignant.
Schafer also has the dramatic flair to bring off the difficult Mignon songs, especially the volatile, quasi-operatic “Heiss’ mich nicht reden” (an apt hint of the grand manner here, with the keyboard part ‘orchestrated’ by Johnson) and “Kennst du das Land”, where the final verse, evoking Mignon’s terrifying passage across the Alps, builds to a climax of desperate, almost demented yearning. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Schafer brings a guileful, knowing touch to the first of the Zigeunerliedchen (a mordant throwaway end here); the Mendelssohnian “Die Meerfee” glistens and glances, its potentially murky textures again carefully sifted and lightened by Johnson; and “Auftrage” has a winning eagerness and charm, with a delicious sense of flirtation between voice and keyboard.
Schafer evokes comparisons here with Elisabeth Schumann (on various transfers) and with the young Elly Ameling (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, recorded in 1967 and reissued on CD, 5/90), whom in tone and freshness of response she often resembles. In sum, a delectable, often revelatory recital. The recording is natural and well balanced, while Graham Johnson’s typically searching commentaries complement the performances in presenting the most eloquent case possible for Schumann’s much maligned and neglected late songs.'