Notes and Editorial Reviews
Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart,
Lieder nach Gedichten von Friedrich Rückert: O Sonn,’ o Meer, o Rose!,
Die Blume der Ergebung,
Lied der Braut I,
Lied der Braut II,
O ihr Herren
Aus den östlichen Rosen,
Liebster, deine Worte stehlen,
Mein schöner Stern!,
Bernarda Fink (mez); Anthony Spiri (pn)
HARMONIA MUNDI 902031 (62:56
Text and Translation)
I would expect this lavishly produced album to give Graham Johnson and his assorted singers on Hyperion some serious competition in the Schumann song arena. This is actually Bernarda Fink’s second album of Schumann songs for Harmonia Mundi. On the earlier one (reviewed by Raymond Beegle in
26:3) she partnered with pianist Roger Vignoles. Here her accompanist is Anthony Spiri, a pianist perhaps not as widely known as Vignoles, but one I happen to be familiar with from a recording on Oehms with violinist Benjamin Schmid of J. S. Bach’s sonatas for violin and keyboard. Fink, on the other hand, enjoys greater name recognition, though to many listeners she is perhaps best known for her distinguished performances of Bach and other Baroque composers.
, or myrtles, are evergreens with white or rosy flowers that are often used to make bridal wreaths. Fittingly, Schumann composed the 26 songs that make up his
, op. 25, for Clara, and presented them to her on the occasion of their wedding. The songs do not technically form a cycle in that texts by eight different poets—Robert Burns (8), Rückert (5), Goethe (4), Heine (3), Thomas Moore (2), Byron (1), Julius Mosen (1), Catherine Maria Fanshawe (1), and Maria von Willemer (1)—in seemingly random order are drawn upon for songs that have little in common other than their portrayals of love in all of its manifold moods, aspects, and dimensions. Graham Johnson, in his copious notes to
on Volume 7 of his Schumann series, uses the words “ragtag” and “patchwork quilt” to describe first impressions. But he goes on to posit that the collection is an entirely new and unique type of song cycle in that it is bound together not only by “personal biographical allusions,” but more significantly, by a specific progression of keys that begins and ends in A? Major. It’s a nice theory on paper, but one that is undermined in actual performance by the not uncommon practice by singers of transposing songs and arias to lie most comfortably within their vocal ranges.
From the 26 songs, Fink begins her program with the poems by Robert Burns, but not all of them, for in total, Burns accounts for eight of the poems, of which Fink gives us only six. If the entire
were presented in order from beginning to end, the songs Fink sings would be numbers 4, 20, 19, 23, 14, and 10, or
Jemand; Weit, Weit; Hauptmans Weib; Im Westen; Hochländisches Wiegenlied
Beautifully sung as Fink’s
songs are, hers is a voice not as well suited, I think, to these poems of youthful passion and ardor as it is to Schumann’s very late
Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart
, op. 135. By 1852, when the five songs that comprise this collection were written, the composer’s mental state was already in serious decline. The poems, authorship of which has never been authenticated, are alleged to have been written by the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots as she awaited execution. Compared to the
songs, Schumann’s settings of the
songs are as night compared to day. The vocal lines are declamatory rather than melodic, and the piano accompaniments are chordal and sparse rather than arabesque-like and florid. It’s in this much darker but poignantly expressive music that Fink comes into her own, recalling Brigitte Fassbaender’s 1977 live recording on Orfeo d’Or, but in better sound and with a more sympathetic partner in Spiri.
Not having at my fingertips a complete catalog of Schumann’s songs, I can’t tell you how many he set to poems by Friedrich Rückert, but there are a lot, and here Fink and Spiri give us a sampling of 10 of them (listed in the headnote) that are all over the map, from three more drawn from the early
Lied der Braut I, Lied der Braut II
Aus den östlichen Rosen
—to the much later
Liebster, deine Worte stehlen
, op. 101/2, and
Mein schöner Stern!
, op. 101/4. Once again, my sense is that Fink is more responsive to the vocal writing and emotional states evoked by Schumann’s later songs, of which
Mein schöner Stern
is one of the composer’s most gorgeous. Until I heard Fink sing it, my favorite version was with Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg on a 1993 Deutsche Grammophon recording, but I would now give Fink the edge.
The op. 39
collection of 12 songs to poems by Eichendorff is Schumann’s second most popular song cycle, surpassed only by
. With nearly half-a-hundred recordings of
to choose from, preference may well divide along lines of whether one is more inclined toward hearing these songs sung by a male or a female voice. It’s hard to argue that there are not any gender specific references in these poems—“My sweetheart must be waiting for me, and yet she has been dead so long,” from
In der Fremde
being just one example—but so much in the art of song (and opera too) requires suspension of disbelief that hearing a woman sing these words shouldn’t raise any eyebrows. It just so happens, though, that my favorite recording of op. 39 is by a male singer—Olaf Bär with Geoffrey Parsons on EMI. Not being a chauvinist, however, I also have both Margaret Price’s Hyperion and Marjana Lipovšek’s Sony recordings, both with Graham Johnson, and I find them thoroughly satisfying. Between Price, Lipovšek, and the new Fink, I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite. But if I had to, I think it would have to be this new Harmonia Mundi, for what makes it stand out for me is the playing of Fink’s accompanist, Anthony Spiri. For all of Johnson’s devotion and dedication to the songs of Schubert and Schumann, I find Spiri the more interpretively expressive and better balanced with his singer by HM’s recording.
A beautiful recital, presented as always by Harmonia Mundi in the highest-quality packaging with full texts in three languages and informative notes by Roman Hinke in a thick booklet printed on heavy-duty, high-gloss paper. Strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
A voice teacher and professional lieder singer I know and respect entered the room during Bernarda Fink's performance of Mondnacht on this new recording of Schumann lieder. "Now that's exactly the kind of voice that should be singing that song," she said without hesitation, and without knowing the singer's identity (Mondnacht is her most cherished song in all of the lieder repertoire). The vibrant, centered tone, roaming that agreeable timbral realm between alto and soprano, its expressive character informed by a singer who has lived life and given careful thought to the songs both as human-felt utterances and as artful, poetic creations--that was what this singer/teacher recognized, and that's what makes this entire recital a pleasure to hear.
It takes just a little while for a listener to feel the entirety of Fink's vocal and interpretive capabilities exhibiting themselves with the singer's usual facility and confidence--and the rather stark Queen Mary songs, which come second on the program, are not among Schumann's more inspiring or ingratiating. But by the second of the Rückert songs--Die Blume der Ergebung (Op. 83 No. 2)--we are in the very special, intimate world of a virtuoso lieder-singer for whom the songs have become personal and vital. Here we truly sense the singer's mood of resigned anticipation, yet retaining that small, glimmering flame of hope, and in this and the following Lied der Braut I (Op. 25 No. 11) we are treated to the exemplary qualities of Fink's finest vocalism--effortless technical control, sensitivity to textual inflection, mature interpretive insight, and the understanding of how to use the tonal characteristics of her voice for enhancing a song's emotional effect, Mondnacht and the later Wehmut being prime examples.
Not everything is perfect--a few of the highest-register notes in Waldesgespräch (from Liederkreis) do not sound especially comfortable--and several of the Myrthen songs seem just slightly unsettled or tentative; but overall, this is a splendid effort from one of the world's great lieder specialists. Although this repertoire--particularly Liederkreis--is not often performed by a mezzo or alto, Fink and her excellent accompanist Anthony Spiri join distinguished interpretations by Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Naïve) and Sarah Connolly (Chandos) as an easy first choice. While I prefer Lemieux in Liederkreis, the couplings are vastly different, and the more I listen, the more I find Fink's interpretive insights in these songs indispensable. Highly recommended.
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Myrthen, Op. 25: no 4, Jemand by Robert Schumann
Bernarda Fink (Mezzo Soprano),
Anthony Spiri (Piano)
Written: 1840; Germany
Liederkreis, Op. 39 by Robert Schumann
Bernarda Fink (Mezzo Soprano),
Anthony Spiri (Piano)
Written: 1840; Germany
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