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A Folk-Oratorio

listens to a new CD of neglected Schumann

CD Review
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There were some who wanted Schumann to take Wagner's place at the Dresden opera, vacated in a blaze of revolutionary fervour (1849). Instead, Schumann decided on the Rhineland town of Düsseldorf, where a different music was in the air. Handel had been there in 1711 seeking to lure the castrato Baldassari to opera in London, but Schumann's duties were mainly choral and orchestral. He had responsibility also for the Lower Rhine Festival, founded in 1818 soon after Prussia took over the area. There was much conducting, and Clara Schumann foresaw considerable toll: 'Ten concerts a year, four concerts of church music, one day a week with the choral society'. Schumann succeeded Hiller, but Mendelssohn had been there previously, producing many Handel oratorios and writing his own St Paul for the Lower Rhine Festival of 1836. Schumann was inexperienced as a conductor and temperamentally unsuited to the task. Initially, the smooth working of the Hiller tradition carried him through, even if his health was uncertain. But incompetence on a rostrum he came to dread and increasing mental torture led step by step to the suicide attempt in the Rhine of February 1854.

The Pilgrimage of the Rose comes within the first year at Düsseldorf, when the Cello Concerto and 'Rhenish' Symphony were also composed. The poem by Moritz Horn attracted Schumann at once; he saw the opportunity for a folk-oratorio far from fugues and contrapuntal effects. (Click to listen.) The story has elements that charm, delight and repel. A rose desires human form to experience the wonders of love. Her wish is granted, and all will be well so long as she guards for herself the rose flower that remains her talisman. Happily married and nursing her first-born, she gives the rose to the child, and joins the angels with hardly a thought for the human husband who must now nanny the baby. The tale belongs firmly to the mid-19th century; yet it has a disquieting relevance for today. Schumann's 24 numbers are simple in structure but charmingly expressive. He later scored the piano accompaniment on the urging of friends, though aware that the original was perfectly satisfactory. Only the sustained music at the end of No.8 requires more than the piano can give. (Click to listen.)

Schumann: Der Rose Pilgerfahrt. Copyright (c) 1999 harmonia mundi s.a.It is entertaining to compare Schumann's two versions of the work. When keyboard figuration is transferred unchanged to the violins, the result is hardly idiomatic and flexibility is lost. One of the main features of this fine performance is the fact that the choir's sensitivity gets an immediate response from Philip Mayers at the piano and vice versa. Clara Schumann was the pianist at the first performance in July 1851; I would back Mayers as a successful substitute. He has an advantage over her, too, that his left hand can already pre-echo the cellos who were to take over as orchestral bass. Much of the choral singing is quietly beautiful, unfolding the tale with much tenderness if an occasional absence of final consonant. The chaps, however, can respond to a hunting call with the best. The admirable Werner Güra is both sympathetic narrator and luckless husband. (Click to listen.) Impersonating the curmedgeonly Martha, Birgit Remmert summons momentary harshness; for the rest she coos as any suckling dove. Hanno Müller-Brachmann is the kindly grave-digger, an open-air Rocco, who sets the delectable Rosa of Christiane Oelze on the first steps of her earthly pilgrimage. It is all very well to follow Robert Herrick and gather 'rosebuds while ye may'. He was thoroughly aware that today's smiling flower 'Tomorrow will be dying' and that it's 'ne'er the rose without the thorn'.

Copyright © Robert Anderson, August 7th 1999


Schumann Der Rose Pilgerfahrt

(The Pilgrimage of the Rose, Op 112,
an oratorio for soloists, choir and piano,
after a poem by Moritz Horn)

Christiane Oelze
Birgit Remmert
Werner Güra
Hanno Müller-Brachmann
RIAS Chamber Choir
Philip Mayers, piano
Marcus Creed, conductor

HMC 901668             DDD            62'27

Copyright © 1999 harmonia mundi s.a.


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