New Recording of Schumann’s “Myrthen”

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SCHUMANN: Myrthen / Camilla Tilling, sop; Christian Gerhaher, bar; Gerold Huber, pno / Sony Classical 19075945362

Myrthen, a seemingly random collection of songs rather than a cycle, set to the words of several poets rather than one, was a pre-wedding gift to Clara Wieck, his bride-to-be. There seems to be no evidence that Robert sat down at the piano and played all the songs while he and Clara took turns singing them, but in my mind’s eye I can imagine this happening. A few of the 26 songs in this collection are quite famous and sung individually, i.e. Widmung, Die Lotosblume, Lied der Suleika, Räthsel and especially Der Nussbaum, but most of them are rather unfamiliar to most listeners.

As Christian Gerhaher points out in his well-informed liner notes, the cycle was named after the flowers of the myrtle tree—some red, some white—which in Germany at that time were considered the flowers of love, just as roses are by British and Americans. The spelling is strange; as Gerhaher explains,

Schumann explicitly chose the title Myrthen for the set. The name of the asso­ciated shrub myrtle was in fact spelt without an H in German at this time, but there were precedents for Schumann’s form in the writings of Goethe and Jean Paul, for example. Myrtle branches have been strewn at festive celebrations since classical antiquity and have often been woven into bridal garlands…The songs were initially written in random order, mirroring one another as if in a multi-coloured kaleidoscope, but Schumann later arranged them in four parts that were published as four separate volumes. On the basis of the final order, I am inclined to assume that Schumann was taking his cue from the content of the songs and in that way moving beyond any question of purely editorial practicability and marketability.

In an online description of the cycle Kerry Lewis states, “In Myrthen we find a clear contrast between Schumann’s two musical personalities, ‘Florestan’ and ‘Eusebius.’ Those in the ‘Florestan’ style have a lively, confident character especially evident in Freisinn, Niemand, and the Hochländer lieder. Eusebius’ more contemplative mood comes through in Mein Herz ist schwer and Was will die einsame Träne? Schumann also confronts numerous other emotions associated with love and marriage, such as devotion (Lied der Saleika and the two Lied der Braut), maternity (Im Westen, Hochländiches Wiegenlied), loneliness (Die Hochländer Witwe, Weit, weit) and bravery (Hauptmanns Weib).”

To the best of my knowledge, this is only the third integral recording of the entire series. The other two are the recordings by baritone (only) Thomas E. Bauer on Naxos and another by Iván Paley and soprano Diana Damrau on Profil. Both Damrau and Tilling have high, bright soprano voices. Tilling’s singing is more impulsive and energetic while Damrau’s is somewhat more artistically controlled. The only song in which I clearly preferred Damrau to Tilling was Der Nussbaum; I just felt that Tilling was too loud in places and not controlled enough.

I suppose that there are a lot of people reading this review who are familiar with Christian Gerhaher, but this was my first exposure to him. He has a very high, bright baritone voice, even higher and brighter than that of Hermann Prey or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In Aus den hebräischen Gesängen, for instance, he goes down to a low A, certainly not near the cavernous depths of many a baritone aria, and can just “touch” the note with no resonance. Even such a similarly light baritone as Thomas Hampson can hit this note. In addition, Geerhaher’s diction is of the “high German” school, complete with rolled “r’s” emphasized almost as strongly as a Scottish burr. One critic for the Gramophone described his singing style as “ponderous,” but I found him quite lively in the energetic songs, more poetic in the quieter ones.

Being Schumann, this collection is extremely interesting as his impulsiveness and lack of predictability comes through in every song—note, for instance, the abrupt shifts of mood and sudden chromatic change of harmony in Jemand, not one of the most famous songs. Indeed, it was his individuality of expression that made him a great composer and Clara, who knew her music thoroughly but had a more formal, prosaic mind, merely a competent one.

In the midst of all this outstanding singing in which the words are pointed up and the overall mood is lively, it may seem churlish of me to not say much about pianist Gerold Huber, but to be honest his contribution is merely good in a professional sense, not exceptional in any way. He never sounds emotionally involved in anything he plays, though he does indeed phrase well, hit all the notes and plays Schumann’s written dynamics markings. You could just as easily have programmed a computerized piano to do the same thing.

There are several interesting songs in this cycle; one of my favorites was Hauptmanns Weib, which is as dramatic a song as Schumann ever wrote. Another was Weit, weit, whose regular, gentle rocking rhythm belies its melodic and harmonic sophistication.

All in all, then, an excellent recording of an oft-neglected Schumann song collection.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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