Elisabeth Kulman’s Great Lieder Recital

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SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen: Nos. 1 & 5. Mond, meiner Seele Liebling. Frauenliebe und Leben: Nos. 1, 3, 6-8. Du nennst mich armes Mädchen. Der Zeisig. Kinderwacht. Fantasiestücke: No. 3, Warum. Die letzten Blumen starben. Reich mir die Hand, o Wolke. Nachtlied. Mondnacht. Dichterliebe: Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. SCHUBERT: Dithyrambe. Die Sterne. Rosamonde: Romance. Wehmut.  Am Tage aller Seelen. Klage. Schweizerlied.  REITER: Sachliche Romanze. Alte Frau auf dem Friedhof. Misstrauensvotum. Für die Katz. Ankündigung einer Chansonette / Elisabeth Kuhman, mezzo; Eduard Kurtrowatz, pno / Orfeo C 956 181 A (live: Schwarzenberg, August 26, 2017)

Several years ago, I reviewed an album of Liszt songs by mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Kulman, a name I had never heard before. It was utterly fabulous, not just in vocal control but also in the depth of her interpretations, but in the interim I heard a performance by her on YouTube in which her once-beautiful voice sounded unsteady and a bit rough, thus I approached this CD with a bit of trepidation.

Happily, in this recital, given in August 2017, she is very much her old self. Her voice is not conventionally “pretty” in the sense that Christa Ludwig’s was, but it has a nice combination of richness and metal in it, and it is again under perfect control. Her accompanist here is the same as on the Liszt recording, Eduard Kurtrowatz, and he, too, is very good, though his performances of the Kinderszenen excerpts are not quite as magical as those of Clara Haskil. Here, she begins with a program of Schumann songs in which she sprinkles five excerpts from Frauenliebe und Leben. I wish she had sung this cycle complete, as her interpretive and vocal skills are obviously perfect for the music, but beggars can’t be choosers. Interestingly, both the songs and the Kinderszenen excerpts are played and sung as an unbroken cycle, as if they were all part of the same score. This, too, is interesting. Kulman and Kurtrowatz have chosen songs that fit each other in terms of mood and, more often than not, key as well.

The program is not, then, performed exactly as it appears in the header of this review. After the fairly long Schumann series, they perform seven excerpts by Schubert, and in this she divides up the three verses or strophes of Dithyrambe with other songs in between, including four by composer Herwig Reiter, a name previously unknown to me—another interesting programming choice. Reiter’s Ankündigung einer Chansonette and Schumann’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, the opening song of Dichterliebe, are sung as encores.

In many ways, Kulman’s artistry harks back to what some romantically refer to as the Golden Age of singing. She even sings perfect little mordents or turns in Schumann’s Der Zeisig of a sort I rarely hear nowadays, and there is a passage in “Nun hast du mir” from Frauneliebe und Leben in which she drains the voice of vibrato. I may be wrong, but the voice also sounds fairly powerful, a rarity among lieder singers of almost any age (Ludwig and Schumann-Heink being among the exceptions to this rule). Her high range almost sounds a bit soprano-ish, like her great older colleague Waltraud Meier, yet her low range has more than a touch of a true contralto about it, and more than once (as in Mondnacht) she shows her ability to float her tone. No two ways about it, it’s a superb and remarkable voice, guided by high intelligence and deep feeling.

Reiter’s music, it turns out, is similarly tonal and romantic like the songs of Schumann, or perhaps a bit more like Hugo Wolf, with its shifting moods; without knowing that there was a change of composer, one would have a difficult time telling the difference between them. Only his Misstrauensvotum and Für die Katz sound more contemporary in sound and structure, though it is still tonal. Interestingly, Schubert’s Die Klage, which immediately follows the first of these, almost sounds like an answer to the Reiter song’s melodic and harmonic structure. Again, very interesting.

As mentioned earlier, the last encore is the first song of Schumann’s integral song cycle Dichterliebe. At the end, what I think she says (in German) is, “that’s all you’re getting. I’ll sing the rest next year!”

No question about it, this is one of the finest lieder recitals issued in recent years by any singer of any voice category. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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