There is a fragile optimism, often threatened by an undertow of irony, that threads its way through Robert Schumann’s songs, and it is a quality that shadows this album from Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber, the first in their projected ten-disc set of Schumann’s Lieder. The optimism is also rendered all the more poignant when you consider the disintegration at the end of the composer’s life.
This lovely first-release’s title, Frage (Question), is one of the songs from the twelve Justinus Kerner settings of Opus 35, in which the poet gives us some of the pleasures that just about keep this vale of tears at bay, with Schumann’s music adding its own ambiguity. With the exception of one song, Warnung (which could also have been a suitable title for this album), all the settings here are in groups, ranging from three to twelve, and Gerhaher’s introductory essay in the booklet (which includes texts and translations) makes a strong case for these groups being either covertly or overtly cyclical or at least sequential.
His writing also makes very clear the sheer scale of what he puts into his interpretations, although there is nothing remotely studied about the result. As in his live recitals, he seems to be singing only for you, which says much for his intense understanding of both the music and the poetry. He can suggest character with the subtlest inflections of timbre, as in ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’!’ (from Opus 35) in which a distraught lover witnesses his beloved offering herself as a nun, and his half-voice is a miracle of softness in the opening song ‘Herzeleid’ of Opus 107, which is like the dark side of a number from Dichterliebe, and the recording caresses his lower voice most beautifully.
There are many moments when he keeps a light, conversational purchase on Gerold Huber’s multi-dimensional piano role, so that voice and accompaniment comment on each other, but at a distance, and Gerhaher’s gift for submerging himself beneath the piano part gives rise to a whole other raft of interpretative possibilities.
That’s the thing – and about Gerhaher’s extraordinary artistry as a whole – that as soon as you connect with just one insight, then others immediately proliferate, and on repeated listening nothing sounds the same. The next release is due out in the autumn.