Schumann / Liederkreis, Op. 39 / Röschmann

This is probably an extremely predictable statement coming from me, but art songs are not something that I think I ever appreciated fully until I heard Dorothea Röschmann singing some of them. There is a specific recital of hers from London in 2007 of songs by Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Wolf and de Falla that I have a bootleg copy of – I got my hands on it because I loved her opera performances, but by the end of it I’d definitely learned something about Lieder.

So I was listening again the other day to the first half of her recent recital at the Schwetzinger festival (they’ve got all the audio up here)*, which is Schumann’s settings of a series of poems by Joseph Eichendorff who as the texts of the songs indicate pretty much immediately, was a 19th-century Romantic poet. (All the texts are here and you can click on the links to get translations into the European language of your choice.)

The songs are about a lot of different things, but if there is a dominant theme it is the connection between nature and human emotion – both the feelings that nature (this is one of those cases where I suspect we can call it Nature rather than nature) evokes directly and the ways in which nature can reflect or clarify things that people feel.

And there is a huge range of feeling in these songs. With the first three you get a turn from inward to outward – or, three songs about relationships to the dead, the living and the illusory. The first, “In der Fremde,” is about being far from home – but not a home that one would return to, since the speaker’s family are dead and he/she is not known to anyone there anymore; the poem moves from looking back at that to a sense of the future in which the speaker will be at rest under the rustling forest (there is a lot of rustling in this song cycle) and no one here will know him/her either. This song has a piano part that just sort of rolls forward, and a lot of the subtlety of the performance is not variation in tempo but in dynamics, as with the slight softness of the line about how the speaker’s father and mother are long since dead, or the way “Waldeinsamkeit” / “the loneliness of the forest” fades away – or not dynamics so much as the simple intensity of “wie bald, ach wie bald” / “how soon, oh, how soon” (i.e. how soon the resting under the trees will happen). The second song, “Intermezzo” (the first line is “Dein Bildnis wunderselig” or “your wonderful, blessed image”) is much quicker and brighter – it’s also about memory, and having someone’s image in one’s heart, but there is anticipation too – it comes through in the happy tension of “jeder, jeder Stunde” / “each hour, each hour” on the repeat of the first stanza. The third, “Waldesgespräch,” is a little story, and you can hear it in the phrasing and the way Röschmann weights the syllables differently so that the two speakers, the (male) narrator and the witch, are distinct.

The next three songs center on the landscape as a way of talking about feelings of joy or anticipation or wonder that take one out of one’s self. “Die Stille” is intimate and sweet and playful and like “In der Fremde” seems to hit all the best parts of Röschmann’s voice. The song sounds youthful – it could be a little snippet from an opera. In the repeat of the first stanza the phrasing is just a touch different and the effect is to make the character’s joy shade a little more to thoughtful, but it’s just for a moment, and the thoughtfulness gets swallowed in the character’s happiness/hope. The following song, “Mondnacht,” contains some of the same imagery as the previous – e.g. about the soul flying upward and outward – but the emotion is bigger and deeper; the beating piano part adds tension. “Schöne Fremde” is again an interaction between self and landscape, but this is an unfamiliar landscape, one that evokes a distant past – the song is about having a strong reaction (it feels like a young person’s reaction) to the magic and associations of an old, but unfamiliar place.

When I was listening to this performance again, I ignored the texts for part of it and just listened. What I love about a song performance like this one is that the mood comes through even if you don’t follow the text. If you simply listen to #7, “Auf einer Burg” what you get is a sense of being at a distance from something somber, alone, a sort of resolved sadness; in the last stanza the sadness deepens. And what do you know? If you read the text, it’s about a knight asleep and turned into stone on his mountain watching place; there is a wedding in the valley below, and the bride is crying. Song 9, “Wehmut” was for me the most deeply affecting of the whole cycle – one’s on the verge of tears, with the first and last stanzas especially. Again, this happens even if you don’t know what the words mean – and as it turns out, the song is about a deep hidden sadness that others do not see.

The tenth song, “Zwielicht,” or “Twilight” is very dark in tone, and I particularly liked the last section, where somehow via the phrasing of the first line of the final stanza there is a sense of opening out, and the second draws in again, and then at the end there is the threat “Much is lost at night – beware – be alert and awake!”

But the cycle ends with hope rather than on a sense of foreboding. In #11 “Im Walde” is about a wedding party passing by. You can hear the wedding party’s celebration in the piano part especially after “entlang” and “schlagen” in the first lines. The second section is different. As the song turns from seeing the wedding party to being alone and hearing the rustling of the woods, you hear a little echo in the piano part of the ‘celebration’ from earlier, but the music draws away from that and the tone turns not bitter or wrenchingly sad, but serious. The last song of all, “Frühlingsnacht” returns to the ‘expansive happiness and birds’ theme we got a little of earlier.

So a lot happens in this song cycle. There are twelve songs, each of which has a specific feel to it, and these all also each contain at least one or two significant shifts of tone or mood. This is probably what struck me most about this performance (and the work itself too – this is not a set of songs I have heard many times before): the sheer variety of it. But there is plenty to hold it together. Many of the songs are about the relationship between self and nature and the various kinds and degrees of closeness or distance between the self and other people. A lot of the imagery in the texts and the types of emotions that are in the songs is very familiar German Romantic stuff: about being alone, about the mystery of the past, lots of mountains and valleys and clouds and rustling trees, how being happy can make you feel as if you’re joyfully dissolving into the world around you, and so on. But the way Röschmann (and Julius Drake, the pianist) perform this material makes it all seem present and immediate.

*Edit 7/13/2013: the audio from the 2012 festival is no longer available – enjoy the performances from this year!