'The performances give unalloyed pleasure. Lott's still-radiant soprano combines beautifully with with the vibrant, musky mezzo of Kirchschlanger, while Johnson's sentient playing is a delight' (Gramophone)
'Felicity Lott and Angelika Kirchschlager give delightfully characterised performances, whle Johnson's playing is typically sensitive and pointed … an ingeniously planned and beautifully executed duet recital' (The Daily Telegraph)
'I'll leave you to experience the conjuring for yourself. For conjuring it is: any element of the didactic is totally absent in this seamless garment of word and music. Fragments of the Schumann we know and love surface and return like a mantra bedding itself deeper and deeper into the subconscious, as a point of reference for the outstanding performances of all three musicians. And, at the end, Johnson's postlude to the Schumann elides into the entwined voices of Brahms's Klänge—only to return as a curtain slowly falling at the end of a recital as near perfection as I know' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Avec de telles artistes, on savait qu’on allait être musicalement comblés. Grandes habituées de l’exercice de Liederabend, elles rivalisent de musicalité, d’émotions et de compréhension des textes. Graham Jonhson est comme à son habitude un modèle d’attention à ses chanteuses. La qualité de la notice de présentation témoigne encore du savoir-faire Hyperion dans le domaine du disque de lieder' (www.resmusica.com)
|Lovestruck: the first meeting|
|Reciprocation and betrothal|
|Fiancées and brides|
|Bitter loss, love everlasting|
Taking as its cue the Frauenliebe und -Leben cycles by Robert Schumann and Carl Loewe, this captivating duet recital follows the poet Chamisso’s story of a single woman’s life and love, expanding it to encompass the life stories of two women as they share and compare their experiences. As part of this broadening of the story we also hear songs and duets on the themes of love, marriage, motherhood and bereavement by Brahms, Mendelssohn and Wolf.
Hyperion’s much-loved soprano Felicity Lott is here joined by the young, sought-after mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager who won a Grammy award in 2004 for her recording with René Jacobs of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.
The art of the duet recital
The duet recital is a more difficult proposition than it seems. It requires, on the performing side, an aptitude for vocal chamber music and, on the personal and fiscal, singers willing to pool their billing, and fees, with a friendly colleague. A decision to be part of such an enterprise is not taken lightly by artists at the top of their profession. Unless there is a good working relationship between the prospective duettists there is no point in considering the idea. The travelling together, as well as the music-making, have to be fun; indeed, hoped-for conviviality is a major factor when tours or recording sessions such as these are planned. In one sense it takes the strain off each of the singers who would otherwise face the heavier musical demands of a solo appearance; but the stress of working with an equally starry colleague if there is no real meeting of minds and hearts, not to mention blending of voices, makes any such collaboration futile. Once it is clear, however, that two singers get on famously (for example in the roles of Marschallin and Oktavian where many hours have to be spent together rehearsing and performing in various parts of a bedroom, and in various states of undress) it has become, especially of late, almost a natural consequence that a duet recital should be on the cards. It is a simple personal choice: some singers get on with each other and wish to spend more time in each others’ company; and some do not.
But it is here that the real difficulties begin. Any two opera singers can like each other sufficiently to want to make music together away from the operatic stage, but the success of the recital programme depends on whether or not the musical material available to them is suitable. The duet repertoire for voices and piano is not as endless as one might imagine. For men and women wishing to collaborate there is, it is true, a large number of love songs and a fair number of duets; when operatic or musical items are included, the dramaturgy of the evening can be made to work. The closing kiss between Dame Felicity Lott and Sir Thomas Allen at the end of a long scena from Carousel seems the natural outcome of a mostly classical evening where almost every single musical item has voiced the singers’ on-stage romantic involvement. In this case we are transferring to the concert hall the conventions of the opera house. The hidden difficulty here is that soprano and baritone repertoire is very much harder to find than that for soprano and tenor. Schumann duets for example would either be too low for the soprano in a transposed key or too high for any baritone in the original. Mezzo and baritone would seem to be an easier choice, but even here (despite the splendid Op 28 duets by Brahms) an evening of songs (as opposed to arias) is likely to comprise alternating sequences from each of the singers’ repertoires. This surely is more of a shared recital than a duet recital, a return to the nineteenth-century conventions when everyone invited everyone else to take part in their evenings. In those days there was a nominal ‘host’ for advertising or billing purposes, as well as for financial reasons, but Clara Schumann, for example, would make guest appearances in Joachim’s recitals, and he in hers. Duetting between the star artists was not to be taken for granted on such occasions; Joachim would often be accompanied by a pianist other than Clara Schumann who waited in the wings for her solos.
The song repertoire for two singers of the same sex has special difficulties, and a concluding kiss à la Carousel is usually less appropriate. Beyond Monteverdi and early music, two tenors, let alone three, are sorely tested without resorting to specially commissioned arrangements; large amounts of money have to be in the offing to make such an idea practical, as well as palatable, to the singers concerned. Tenor and baritone have invariably to turn to the duet from Les pêcheurs de perles. Mainly for reasons of temperament, as well as of repertoire, the idea of two baritones singing together is almost as unworkable as the combination of two soprano prima donne. The soprano and mezzo combination is completely different however: it is supported by the nineteenth-century salon tradition of young ladies (often sisters) singing duets together—and this in turn stems, surely, from Mozart and Da Ponte who created in Così fan tutte a scenario with a plausible raison d’être for this ravishing combination of timbres. Bellini presented Norma and Adalgisa (although the latter was originally a soprano part), and Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms duly catered for the Fiordiligis and Dorabellas of their own time. Fauré, and other French composers, were especially inspired by Pauline Viardot’s duetting daughters, Claudie and Marianne. Here and there one finds further useful duets for women’s voices (Purcell, Beethoven folk songs, Rossini, Dvorák and so on) but the list is relatively short if one insists on high musical quality. The travesti passions of Cherubino and Oktavian are not comfortable within the bounds of a concert hall; take away love duets and one is reduced to songs extolling the beauties of nature, or two women admiring, or competing for, the same man. As Irving Berlin put it: ‘God help the mister who comes between me and my sister / And God help the sister who comes between me and my man.’ That is as succinct a summation of the plot of Così fan tutte as I can imagine.
It seems to me that the challenge in planning such programmes is to find some musical reason or other for two voices to come, and stay, together for an evening. Over twenty years ago I devised a Songmakers’ Almanac programme for Felicity Lott and her regular duet partner Ann Murray entitled If Fiordiligi and Dorabella had been lieder singers. The plot of Mozart’s opera was followed in very general terms allowing for duets and solos of devotion, wavering, capitulation and reconciliation. The deus ex machina was Richard Jackson in Don Alfonso mode where that character’s recitatives were spoken rather than sung as the connecting tissue between the women’s songs. Another such experiment was A Lieder Capriccio, a whole evening of Richard Strauss lieder where the plot and the casting (soprano, baritone, tenor, and a speaking part for the major-domo) were based on Strauss’s opera Capriccio, and where the lieder were connected by fragments from the opera itself. Over many years, and after devising some three hundred different recital programmes, I have learned that solo songs are an important part of every duet recital—the constituent parts of any vocal combination are more to be valued when they can also be heard separately. I realized that a mixture of styles and languages, including items from the English Music Hall, was possible as long as there was a strong enough unifying thread—in the case above, the story-line of Mozart’s opera reduced to its basic outline. If an opera can have a ‘plot’, why not a song recital?
Women’s lives and loves
The crucial idea was to follow the shape of Adelbert von Chamisso’s cycle of poems entitled Frauenliebe und -leben. Robert Schumann wrote his famous songs in 1840, though his was by no means the first musical setting. This honour fell to the artist and poet Franz Kugler (1808–1858), a close friend of Chamisso, who published the cycle with his own simple but touching music in his Skizzenbuch of 1830. In 1831 Franz Lachner wrote a setting of Seit ich ihn gesehen (the cycle’s first song) with clarinet obbligato. Schumann was not even the second composer to write a full setting of the poetic sequence; this was Carl Loewe whose cycle was composed and published in 1836. By the time Schumann came to set these words he was almost certainly already aware of their musical possibilities in other hands. Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben quickly became a staple of the repertoire; it is so well known in fact that many song enthusiasts could hum the piece through from start to finish without difficulty! The Loewe on the other hand is much more of a rarity: it has moments, indeed whole songs, of great beauty, but also longueurs and patches where Schumman’s greater inspiration invites unfavourable comparisons.
Women’s lives and loves is a programme based on the various stages of romantic and marital experience where these two cycles, the Schumann and the Loewe, are interleaved with each other. This music is in turn enriched with duets by Schumann himself as well as Mendelssohn and Brahms, and there are further solo songs by Brahms and Wolf. There are complete performances of neither Schumann’s nor Loewe’s cycle. A straightforward side-by-side performance of the two works with each singer alternating the same poems may seem a good idea in theory, but this proves deadly in practice, a kind of juke-box jury that is unfair to both composers in different ways. Nevertheless we hear all Chamisso’s texts, and in the poet’s sequence (not including, however, the ninth poem for the suddenly aged heroine as a grandmother, which Loewe set in rather uninspired fashion, and Schumann simply ignored).
In this scenario it is as if two women are feeling similar emotions, but fixing their gaze on different men in different tessituras. Throughout the recital Angelika Kirchschlager is the advocate of the Loewe cycle (which the composer intended to be sung by a mezzo-soprano) while Felicity Lott remains identified with Schumann’s setting for soprano. Instead of creating an atmosphere of rivalry, the mood suggests two women able to confide in each other about the joys and pains of their different relationships. At the end of the evening the mezzo is drawn into the soprano’s orbit and takes part in a performance of Schumann’s final song. Between the songs we hear fragments of Schumann’s cycle in a solo piano arrangement by Schumann’s younger contemporary Theodor Kirchner (1823–1903); this arrangement was sanctioned by, and dedicated to, Clara Schumann—indeed it has emerged fairly recently that Kirchner was Clara’s lover for a short time following Robert’s death. This programme’s scheme allows room for other songs and duets which are placed in such a way as to comment on the cycle’s broader themes.
Lovestruck: the first meeting
We now hear part of the second strophe of Schumann’s Seit ich ihn gesehen (track 10, FL). Attached to this fragment is Wolf’s Was für ein Lied soll dir gesungen werden? (track 11, AK) which expresses the fervent admiration of a lover who can scarcely find the words to praise the object of her affections. This leads into the famous Er, der Herrlichste von allen (track 12, FL) in Schumann’s setting; romantic elation is punctured by the bitter realization that only a girl as high-born as the beloved himself will be worthy to be his life companion. The singer can only promise herself that she will bless this worthy consort, whoever it may be, while her own heart breaks. As a despondent echo of Schumann’s song we hear the last strophes of Loewe’s very different setting of these words (track 13, AK). Unlike Schumann, who opts for a recapitulation of the opening words as his coda, Loewe is content to end his song with the poet—the bereft words ‘Brich, o Herz, was liegt daran?’
Brahms’s Mädchenlied (track 14, AK) is the song of a young woman who feels that after much waiting and hoping she no longer has any marital prospects. After a further piano interlude (another echo of Seit ich ihn gesehen—track 15, GJ) the second extract from Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch, the song Wohl kenn’ ich Euren Stand (track 16, FL), underlines the mood of tender veneration where one person in a relationship feels scarcely worthy of the other. This imbalance is soon to right itself, but not before this Wolf song, and Schumann’s Seit ich ihn gesehen, are made briefly to entwine in an impassioned outburst of emotion (track 17, duet). This music is suddenly interrupted by the postman’s knock, nineteenth-century style.
Reciprocation and betrothal
Loewe’s setting of Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben (track 19, AK) is less excitable perhaps than Schumann’s, but equally enraptured. Felicity, who up to this moment has been feeling decidedly left out, now receives a visit from the same postman, albeit in a different key; her letter contains a German folk poem as a declaration of love. As she reads this we hear Schumann’s Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben arranged for solo piano (track 20, FL, GJ). The voice takes up Chamisso’s text with that tender avowal of love (‘Mir war’s, er habe gesprochen: / Ich bin auf ewig dein’, track 21, FL)—a Schumann characterization unequalled by other composers. Now Schumann’s Botschaft (the Spanisches Liederspiel again) insinuates itself into the musical fabric (track 22, duet), a languid bolero from southern climes. The musical mood suggests the sighs of pre-nuptial longing as girls prepare their trousseaux and wedding garlands. Du Ring an meinem Finger betokens the actual betrothal. These are very different rings for different fingers: we hear Loewe’s setting from the mezzo (track 23, AK) give way to the second half of Schumann’s from the soprano where there is a recapitulation of the song’s famous opening theme, here briefly made to combine in duet with the melody of the Loewe setting (track 24, FL joined by AK).
Kirchner’s piano arrangement of Schumann’s Helft mir, ihr Schwestern (track 25, GJ) serves as an interlude; this signifies the two girls imagining their weddings—dreaming about their big days before they actually take place. The two remaining songs in the section further depict their excitement and impatience. The Brahms song Das Mädchen spricht (track 26, FL and AK) is shared between the singers as they compare their imminent marital happiness to that of the joyful female swallow. (The German word ‘Braut’ means ‘fiancée’, rather than ‘bride’.) Schumann’s duet Das Glück (track 27, duet) seems to continue the conversation with the birds initiated in the Brahms song. Schumann’s own impatience for his marriage day, and all the sweet things it will bring, leaves the singers in a state of giddy rapture.
Fiancées and brides
Chamisso’s cycle of poems sends the girl down the aisle and we hear nothing more from her until she announces to her overjoyed, but surprisingly astounded, husband that they are expecting a baby. In this extended musical narration incorporating the lovers’ honeymoon we permit ourselves to make some suggestion of the events which lie between. In concert performances of this recital the seemingly naive Felicity was aghast as Angelika whispered in her ear what was expected of her on her wedding night. Her surprised facial reaction to this information triggers Wolf’s Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens (track 32, FL) where everything about the music, including its tempo (Äusserst schnell) comes as something of a shock. The song has a text by Mörike which employs astonishingly Freudian imagery: ‘It would lacerate a block of marble’, Wolf proudly said of it, and it seems suitable enough to depict a wedding night which leads to unexpected lift-off—unexpected, that is, by the heroine, though no doubt passionately foreseen, and hoped for, by her new husband. The indolent charms of Spanisches Lied by Brahms (track 33, AK) suggest a pleasure that has quickly become a habit, a song where the bird-like energy of Das Glück is replaced by the lassitude of a lazy honeymoon in the Canaries.
After sharing these experiences with each other, and with us, we must imagine that the two women go their separate ways and have children of their own. We hear two very different versions of An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust. This is the only occasion on this disc when a Schumann setting, and one on the same words by Loewe, are sung complete and side by side. Schumann (track 37, FL) depicts the more immediate excitement of motherhood—breast-feeding in the first verse leads to mother rocking the baby in her arms and then bouncing him delightedly on her knee. Loewe aims for tender contentment with a touch of coloratura rapture (track 38, AK). In both songs there is a strong sense of the woman’s empowerment as she pities men unable to share the depth of her experience. Roles have been reversed, and it is now the man who is blinded by mysteries that he can only observe with wonder. The Mendelssohn setting of a poem by Burns (Volkslied, track 39, duet) is a final statement of the devotion of the married couple; the imagery may also apply to parents’ love for their children, for this is music which implies the strength of family life. It also mentions ill fortune and the willingness to shoulder it with one’s loved ones. Sadly the heroine will have to bear her desperate ill fortune all too soon.
Bitter loss, love everlasting
Graham Johnson © 2006