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Schumann & Mahler: Lieder

Florian Boesch (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
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Recording details: November 2014
Crear Studio, Argyll, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: October 2017
Total duration: 47 minutes 3 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph by Lukas Beck

Schumann's Eichendorff 'Liederkreis' makes for a contemplative coupling with Mahler's 'Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen': Florian Boesch at his expressive best in perfect partnership with Malcolm Martineau.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'From Boesch and Martineau, excellence is the norm … although I've heard dozens of performances over the last 40 years, this took my breath away. I've been playing the songs over and over, getting so much from it. Boesch's voice is a thing of wonder—such richness, such beauty—yet fluidly natural, free of mannerisms and self consciousness' (Opera Today, USA)

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Two renowned German poets, a famous collection of German folk poetry, and two of Romanticism’s finest song composers come together in this album. The three song cycles selected by two superlative artists all tell, in varying hues, of the Romantic individual’s sense of alienation from others and of transcendence, or the longing for it. ‘Nach innen geht der geheimnisvolle Weg. In uns oder nirgends ist die Ewigkeit mit ihren Welten, die Vergangenheit und Zukunft’ (‘The mysterious path goes within. In us or nowhere is eternity with its worlds, the past and the future’), wrote Novalis (the pen name of Georg Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772-1801, and one of the ‘founding fathers’ of German Romanticism): these poetic works are explorations of innermost experience, their profundity heightened by the music of Schumann and Mahler.

When aspiring song composers came to Schumann for advice, he often recommended Joseph von Eichendorff as the perfect poet for lieder. The respect was mutual: on 10 January 1847, the poet attended a concert that included Schumann’s Eichendorff songs sung by Jenny Lind. Clara Schumann tells us in her diary that after the concert, Eichendorff said ‘that Robert had given life to his poems for the first time, and I replied that it was his poems which had given life to the compositions’. The scion of an aristocratic family whose fortunes were on the wane, Eichendorff had to earn his living as a civil servant, first in Vienna and finally in Berlin until early retirement due to ill health in 1844. ‘Life’, he wrote, ‘with its many-coloured images, stands in relation to the poet as a book of hieroglyphs in an unknown protolanguage is to a reader.’ In his poems, the physical world becomes a diaphanous veil through which mystical meanings glimmer, while time too always has a metaphysical dimension. Nostalgia, homesickness, longing for something that lies beyond, in the infinite, are near-incessant themes of his lyric poetry, influenced by the great Romantic anthology of German folk poetry, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The youth’s magic horn’). This anthology was assembled between 1805 and 1808 by the poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano—we will encounter it later in the century, in Mahler’s song oeuvre.

1840 is the second ‘miracle year of song’ in music history, the year when Schumann returned to a genre he had abandoned in the 1830s. He had spent much of the earlier decade creating sets or cycles of short, interrelated piano pieces in a radical new style; it is therefore not surprising that he gravitated to song cycles—a genre only invented in the early nineteenth century—in this fateful year, in which he and Clara Wieck would finally marry, at the conclusion of the lawsuit with Clara’s formidable father. It was Schumann’s practice to select individual poems from within a poet’s works and arrange them in his own design—a ‘created’ cycle—, and he did so with twelve Eichendorff poems to form his Liederkreis, Op 39: the title means ‘song cycle’, as if hinting that this work is the epitome of the genre as Schumann conceived it. The first song, ‘In der Fremde’, is Romanticism in a nutshell, with its lone wanderer in a strange land, the hints of a menace that is more than meteorological (the storm clouds and lightning are elements in a soulscape), and its forest symbolizing the innermost recesses of the soul. Eichendorff wrote that ‘a song sleeps in all things’ and that a ‘magic word’ can draw it forth; in ‘Intermezzo’, the persona’s heart not only contains the beloved’s image but sings ‘an old and beautiful song’ that is carried to her on the wind. We hear much syncopation, the intertwining of the piano’s right-hand part and the singer’s line, the ‘heartbeat’ palpitations in the piano, and a remarkably expressive postlude: all Schumannian hallmarks.

‘Waldesgespräch’ is a dialogue (but sung by one person) between a quasi-medieval knight overcome by lust and greed when he encounters a beautiful woman in the forest. She, however, turns out to be the death-dealing Loreley, originally a descendent of Homer’s sirens, who lured sailors to shipwreck on the rocks of the Rhine but here reinvented as a Christian witch or sorceress. In the repetition of the piano introduction as the postlude, we can hear the next knight rounding the bend in the forest path even as this knight goes to his damnation: this is a Romantic version of the fall of man. In ‘Die Stille’, a woman muses in private about her sense of wellbeing—she is in love—and wishes that ‘only one’ would know of it. In Schumann’s music, the quietude she celebrates becomes the lightest of textures, shot through with silences; we hear a momentary darkening of the harmonies when the stars’ silence is deemed less than that of her thoughts. The desire mid-song to become a bird and take flight all the way to heaven adds just the right touch of elan to the passage. ‘Mondnacht’ is one of the most exquisite works in all of German song: the vast expanse between the low B in the bass and the high C sharp above it at the beginning is magical in its effect. One need only play those two notes, and musicians in the room will call out this song’s name. In the introduction, the right-hand heavens descend to kiss the left-hand earth, and the earth rises to meet the celestial presence: this is the mystic marriage of earth and heaven. Five times in the course of this song, the singer’s initial phrase (cruelly difficult to sing) rises in ethereal perfection into the heights, the repetitions evocative of a tranced state. At the words ‘Die Erde still geküßt’, we hear for the first time in the bass the musical letter E H (B natural) E, or ‘Ehe’: the German word for marriage. On such a mystic, moonlit night as this, the soul can spread its wings and fly as if going home—in Eichendorff’s hieroglyphic vocabulary, home to God. Marvellously, the singer’s final word, ‘Haus’ (‘home’), is not closure. The imaginative extension of the poem in the postlude is typical of Schumann, who believed that composers must become ‘Dichter’, or ‘poets’.

‘Schöne Fremde’ is the ‘flip side’ of the first song, an ecstatic experience of nocturnal wonder in a forest far from home. Its words come from Eichendorff’s novella Dichter und ihre Gesellen (‘Poets and their companions’), when the Baron Fortunat wanders through a ruined palace and sings of ‘some great happiness to come’—words bound to appeal to this composer at that moment. The stony knight in ‘Auf einer Burg’ is an allusion to the medieval monarch Friedrich Barbarossa or Friedrich I (1122-90), who, legend says, lies in bewitched sleep in a cave within the Kyffhäuser mountain in Thuringia. Wotan’s ravens keep watch; when they fly away, the founder of the Hohenstaufen dynasty will awaken from the dead and return to his people. This haunting song has trace elements of Phrygian mode and recalls the grave rhythms of Renaissance music, and yet, the dissonances that cut to the bone are part and parcel of Schumann’s radical originality. A persona lost in the forest in yet another song entitled ‘In der Fremde’ conjures up ecstatic visions of a long-dead love. In ‘Wehmut’, the poet sings of the melancholy no one can hear beneath the surface of seemingly happy songs, and Schumann finds music to express the paradox. In ‘Zwielicht’, the forest at twilight is a pagan realm where nothing can be trusted, a symbol of our alienation and isolation, from Nature and from each other. In the piano’s eerie introduction, melodies branch off from one another like different wanderers, lost and in mortal peril in the dark night of the soul; ambiguities abound. At the end of this disturbing song, we still do not know ‘Was will dieses Graun bedeuten’ (‘what can this dusk and dread imply’). We are once again ‘Im Walde’ (‘In the forest’) for the eleventh song, whose poet sings of a bridal procession wending its way the length of the mountain. When night falls, all other human presence disappears, and the persona shudders.

But we are not left in solitary fright at the close. In the final song, ‘Frühlingsnacht’, Schumann’s exquisite pianistic rustling beautifully counteracts the melancholy and menace of so many of the previous songs (a psychologically revealing Schumannian trait). ‘The Eichendorff song cycle is probably my most Romantic work, and there’s a lot of you in there, my dear, sweet fiancée’, Robert told Clara after completing this masterpiece.

There would be no such ending in mystical joy for the poetic character we encounter in the Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, Op 98a. Schumann had only set a few poems by Goethe before 1849, the centenary of Goethe’s birth; Schumann attended a series of conferences about a Goethe celebration in Dresden in July and August of that year and composed the Mignon, Harper, and Philine songs of Op 98a in that anniversary year. The texts come from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (‘Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’), a ‘Bildungsroman’ in which a young man grows to maturity and outgrows his illusions at considerable cost to those around him. The novel is punctuated by lyric poems sung by its characters, including the mysterious Harper, whose tragic history we only learn at the end, and the child Mignon. The Harper, son of the eccentric Italian Marquis Cipriani, was raised apart from his younger sister Sperata (her name derived from ‘Speranza’, or ‘hope’); ignorant of her existence, he meets her as a young man, they fall in love, and she bears him a child: Mignon. Upon discovering that they are brother and sister, Sperata dies, and the Harper wanders hither and yon, singing of his sorrow and guilt. His songs make manifest both art’s power over death and its futility in the face of death, its conversion of the world into ordered language and its creator’s inability to cope with tragic reality.

For a composer well aware of the Wagnerian revolution in music throughout the 1840s, the tragic figure of the Harper afforded Schumann a perfect opportunity to create irregular, asymmetrical phrases (five bars or three bars instead of four, phrases that stop before the customary downbeat ending, etc.); saturated chromaticism; and the avoidance or negation of cadences in the best Wagnerian manner. Not until the very end of ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass’, in the postlude, do we hear a clear, unmistakable statement of the tonic key and chord. For the Harper’s furious condemnation of the ‘Heavenly Powers’ that lead innocents into guilt and then abandon them to lifelong misery, only utmost tonal instability would do. In the rage-filled, sweeping arpeggiations, we hear the minstrel’s harp become an agent of anger. The late eighteenth century made a distinction between ‘Einsamkeit’ (‘loneliness’, which could be positive or negative) and being ‘allein’ (‘alone’), the latter often a sad or even pathological state. In ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt’, the Harper declares that those such as he who surrender to solitude are soon left alone by others and then laments that only in the grave will torment finally leave him. We hear the Harper’s madness as well in the eerie, tiptoe figures in the piano to accompany the analogy of ‘the lonely one’ to a Peeping Tom lover. ‘An die Türen will ich schleichen’ is the Harper’s bleak prophecy of a future in which he will beg for his bread from door to door. In a state of alienation beyond remedy, he will wonder why people weep a single tear. They will not spare more for someone such as he. All expansiveness gone, this song is the epitome of terse tragedy that barely knows itself to be tragic, the repeated sixteenth-note figures in the piano no longer an expansive harp gesture but a listless shuffle. The Picardy third cadence (a chord in major mode at the close of a work in minor mode) at the end—an antique device—closes off the bleak vision with unforgettable quiet dignity.

Both Schumann and Mahler had recourse to Romantic poetry’s and folk poetry’s ample supply of wanderers, who see the world from a different perspective than stay-at-home types. In 1883, Mahler had probably acquired a brand-new edition of Des Knaben Wunderhorn and would then borrow eight lines from a quodlibet (a ‘mash-up’ of several disparate poems) in book 3 of that famous anthology, expanding and altering them as the text for ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’, the first song in his first song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the culmination of a century of wayfarers. Here, the jilted lover cannot bear the dissonance between nature’s beauty and his own sorrow and tells of his despair. At the beginning, Mahler contrasts the wayfarer’s dragging slow, mournful pace with quicker ‘wedding music’ in the piano that might remind some of klezmer strains. The grace-noted accents attached to hollow perfect fifths in the bass at the beginning are reminiscent of the (somewhat differently disposed) hurdy-gurdy drone figures in ‘Der Leiermann’, the last song in Schubert’s Winterreise—Mahler will invoke that famous 1827 cycle again at the end of this work, composed almost sixty years later.

When Mahler borrows from German folk song, it is for his own modern and ironic purposes. ‘Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld’ extends the discrepancy between nature’s beauty and human despair in the first song: a catalogue of the sights and sounds of an early spring or summer morning, with its repeated refrain, ‘Isn’t it a lovely world?’, culminates with the persona’s heartbroken rejection of any such possibility for himself. Despair becomes massive in ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’, with its vocal lines that writhe in agony, shriek in pain, whisper eerily of the images that haunt the persona, and, finally, descend as if into the grave. The wild tempest at the start dies away into near-nothingness by the end.

The final song, ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’, establishes an important pattern for Mahler: the ‘farewell finale’, or concluding funeral march (Mahler’s works are full of them) and this composer’s distinctive mixture of parallel major and minor modes. The despairing lover, after the three prior songs of lamentation, leaves ‘the place I loved most’. On the road, he sees a linden tree, the rendez-vous site for lovers in German poetry from the Middle Ages onward, whether in life or death. Schubert’s winter wanderer in ‘Der Lindenbaum’, the fifth song in Winterreise, resists the temptation to ‘rest’ beneath the lovers’ tree, i.e. to die, but not Mahler’s wanderer. Under the linden, everything—love, sorrow, world, and dream—becomes good again, but at the very end, we hear in the treble register the faint echoes of life’s pain.

Susan Youens © 2017

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