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Delicate dramatic sense

ERIC VAN TASSEL listens to Juliane Banse singing Schumann lieder

'The Songs of Robert SchuMANN' - no, not a misprint. 'The Hyperion SchuBERT Edition', also masterminded by the pianist Graham Johnson, has reached its 33rd CD and is nearly complete. But this Schumann series is a new undertaking; and to judge from volume 3, Johnson's new project may well turn out to be as fine an achievement as its predecessor.

Juliane Banse, one of the growing troupe of younger singers who are as much at home in Lieder as in oratorio and opera, is a genuine mezzo with a wide compass. If the voice seems a little edgy at the very top, that is only by comparison with the perfect control and velvety beauty of colour everywhere else in her range.

More than half Schumann's output of nearly 270 songs originated in a single year, 1840; he then wrote almost no Lieder for some eight years, returning to the genre in 1849-52 before mental collapse finally silenced him. If we were told that his late songs were by some minor composer of the period, we'd probably find them more than adequate - capable in technique and touching in expression, but they seldom if ever rise to the high standard which Schumann himself had set in 1840.

The Songs of Robert Schumann - 3. Copyright (c) 1999 Hyperion Records ltd.This CD is almost exactly divided between 1840 - with Frauenliebe und -leben as its star attraction, introduced by five other songs - and 1850-52, with two short cycles preceded by another half-dozen individual songs. In his copious and illuminating booklet notes, Johnson acknowledges that many of the late songs have their flaws; but he also discerns their merits. And he recognizes that several of these songs, despite their infelicities, show the composer groping towards a new idiom - as when he spins out a seemingly endless line in Die letzten Blumen starben Op. 104/6. [Click to listen.]

In his notes, Johnson cites the influence of Wagner (which Schumann obviously found unwelcome but irresistible), and observes that what Schumann was trying to do would not be fully achieved until Hugo Wolf, almost half a century later.

But Schumann had a Wolfian side even in his song-writing prime. Die Kartenlegerin Op. 31/2 evokes the operatic (or operettic) Wolf of the Italian and Spanish Songbooks. Banse's delicate dramatic sense here is finely supported by Johnson's refined playing, and by his unfashionable way of not taking everything too fast. As Banse acts out the daydreams of the young fortune-teller, Johnson subtly varies a little leitmotif that perhaps depicts the girl shuffling her cards. (Here and elsewhere, we also hear Johnson's expressive staccato: he emulates, perhaps better than any other player of the modern Steinway, the characteristic dryness of the piano of Schumann's day, when the iron frame hadn't yet transformed the instrument by enhancing its sustaining power). [Click to listen.]

It's on these 1840 songs, where Schumann's command of ideas and technique is complete, that this CD must stand or fall; and the centrepiece among them is Frauenliebe und -leben Op. 42, a male composer's realization of a male poet's conception of a woman's emotional life, from first love through marriage and childbirth to early widowhood. Johnson is lucid and convincing in his discussion of the 'political incorrectness' of this cycle. He recalls that as a young musician in the 1960s he was outraged by its 'clumsy and patronising depiction' of a woman's feelings, but that he gradually learned that 'the majority of female singers tend to revel unashamedly in the emotions of Frauenliebe und -leben'.

For Johnson and Banse, the protagonist's deep springs of passionate emotion are held in check by the reserve that came naturally to a woman of her time. Elisabeth Schumann, though nearly 60 in 1946, captures the young expectant mother's tremulous shyness at 'Let me whisper to you and tell you all my delight', while the extraordinary French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann is thoroughly late-20th-century, seductive and frankly sexual. Banse may be a little staid here; [click to compare recordings] but a moment later it's Banse who strikes exactly the right note, starting to open her heart - 'Feel how my heart pounds, wanting to press you closer and closer!' - but not quite daring to go too far. [Click to listen.]

There's a fine snapshot of the rich musicality of the Banse/Johnson partnership in the last song: at 'Schlaf' ('you sleep the sleep of death'), the voice carries on as if unaware that the piano has stopped dead; but at 'leer' ('my world is empty'), the voice falls silent while the piano - the outside world - remains unperturbed. I haven't heard such subtleties in any other performance. [Click to listen.]

Although Stutzmann's hair-raising intensity is undeniably compelling, Banse's is the Frauenliebe recording that I'll revisit more often. Meanwhile, another label has just announced a CD on which Banse and the baritone Andreas Schmidt share the earliest Lieder of Brahms, Schumann's greatest protégé. Basil Ramsey please note: here's a reviewer who's waiting for your call.


Copyright © Eric Van Tassel, October 2nd 1999


CD and purchase information

Comparisons made in the above review were with
Elisabeth Schumann on EMI CDH 565498 2
and Nathalie Stutzmann on RCA 09026-61187-2

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