There are several recordings of Schumann’s Op. 39 Liederkreis, studio and otherwise, that are very close to my heart. Having heard Sarah Connolly singing Handel last week I was curious what her interpretation of this song cycle would be like.
The version of this that I’m most used to is Röschmann’s, in various bootleg formats. She performs this cycle with her characteristic drama and intensity. Connolly’s version is less visceral but very beautiful.
The tempos are slower, but the drawn out lines never lose their shape, e.g. in “Wehmut” or her luminous “Mondnacht.” In the first song, “In der Fremde,” the slower tempo gives the piece a specific sort of plaintiveness that I hadn’t quite heard in it before. Less anguish, more sadness. Connolly is ably assisted here by Eugene Asti’s accompaniment – the rolling phrases in the piano part mesh just right with what Connolly is doing.
Connolly doesn’t seem to be one to make the drama too obvious. She doesn’t lean on the climaxes in “Schöne Fremde,” and the narrator in “Intermezzo” has a little restraint to her – she doesn’t cut loose with the enthusiasm. “Die Stille” is similarly more formal than I am used to. This is a difference rather than a criticism – the interpretation of the song is very elegant, e.g in the line about “Ich wünschte ich wäre ein Vöglein” (“I wish I was a little bird” – it seems to me that without small birds, the entire Lieder industry would collapse), she draws back just a little about halfway through, and there’s something about that detail that really works, though it’s probably easier to hear than explain.
The singing is deeply atmospheric, but in a subtle way, e.g. in “Auf einer Burg.” It’s hard to pin down exactly where the effect comes from, but it’s there. Occasionally voice type makes a difference too. In “Zwielicht,” the last line, “Hüte dich, bleib wach und munter!” (“beware – be awake and alert!”) pulls Röschmann down into the earthy lowest part of her range; Connolly can slide down to those notes without batting an eyelash. It’s less creepy – but that isn’t the goal with this interpretation to begin with. Given that I know there is a version of this cycle for male voice, I wondered whether these two singers were using the same score, or whether there’d been some key changes that might move things up or down. Based on what my ears tell me via a comparison of the first note of the first song, I don’t think there is.