No 1: Mailied Pflücket Rosen, um das Haar
No 2: Frühlingslied Der Frühling kehret wieder
No 3: An die Nachtigall Bleibe hier und singe
No 4: An den Abendstern Schweb' empor am Himmel
The composer set seven songs for solo voice, Op 104, ‘in memory of the poet’; for these he wrote biographical commentaries as headings for each song, placing each setting within the context of Kulmann’s life. There is a note on this cycle (as well as the poet) in the booklet accompanying Volume 3 of the Schumann Hyperion Edition. At the same time he was working on the duets recorded here. While admitting that Schumann’s late style has its revelatory moments and its masterpieces, we cannot help but look back ruefully to the great song composing year, only eleven years earlier. Indeed, we seem decades away from the period when Schumann’s music was effortlessly allied with the greatest poets of the age like Heine and Eichendorff where there was no need for this kind of special pleading. In 1849, it is true, he had written a cycle in memory of the poet Lenau, but in that case there was a real case to be made for the poet’s importance, and Schumann’s songs did much to bring this verse to the attention of musicians.
The first two poems set in Op 103 were taken from a massive sub-section of Kulmann’s verse poetry entitled Gemäldesammlung in vierundzwanzig Sälen (‘Collection of pictures in twenty-four galleries’) written between 1819 and 1820. The poems for the third and fourth duets are from another Gemäldesammlung, this time arranged in twenty ‘galleries’. Schumann ploughed his way, it seems, through hundreds of pages of printed verse in a remarkably substantial and heavy tome in order to pinpoint the lyrics he believed suitable for musical setting. One cannot help feeling that there was an quixotic, even obsessive, side to this quest that stemmed from the composer’s increasingly disturbed psychological state.
Schumann seems to be continuing here in the style of the Liederalbum für die Jugend Op 79—which is to say that the music itself is unchallenging to the ear and has a sweet innocence about it (no doubt because Kulmann herself was a child when she wrote the poems). Schumann seems to have abandoned his penchant for making two voices compete with each other in enunciating different parts of the text at different times—this had resulted in a rich contrapuntal weave in many of the earlier duets. In these Kulmann settings, on the other hand, there is little that Mendelssohn would have found surprising, but quite a bit he may have found awkward. If Schumann had envisaged these songs being sung by children he would have searched in vain for two youngsters capable of singing them sufficiently well. Whenever music is self-consciously simple like this it is inevitably also more exposed; there are challenges here of intonation and breath control that need professional experience, particularly in the slower songs.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2007