Over the next two years, the baritone Christian Gerhaher and his regular pianist, Gerold Huber, plan to record all of Schumann’s songs. Rather than launch the project with the celebrated cycles, such as Dichterliebe or the two Liederkreis, they begin with a selection of lesser-known groups ranging across Schumann’s songwriting career, from his initial “year of song” in 1840 to the early 1850s. The most substantial – the 12 songs in Kerner Lieder, Op 35 (one of which, Frage, gives the title to the disc) – dominates the collection. That cycle dates from 1840, while despite the late opus number, the Four Songs, Op 142 also contain three numbers from that year – two originally intended for Dichterliebe and one left over from the Kerner collection.
Gerhaher wrote an essay for the liner notes, in which he not only reveals a fascinating insight into his dramatic approach to this music but also his sheer enthusiasm for it. There is no doubt that Schumann brings the very best out of him. If some of Gerhaher’s London recitals in recent years have been short on spontaneity (as if his impeccable diction and astonishing control of colour and verbal nuance had become a bit automatic), there is no sense of any kind of routine on this album.
Such freshness is as obvious in his performance of some of the slighter numbers as it is in the authentically great songs of the Kerner set, the best of them as fine as anything in Dichterliebe. Even the supposedly straightforward Romanzen und Balladen, Op 49 acquire an extra dimension. Gerhaher describes them as “a prime example of Schumann’s ability to translate poetic irony into music”, and so an unsuspecting lyric such as Die Nonne, about a nun envying the joy of a new bride, ends on a note of cynicism. It’s typical of the care that has gone into performing every song on the disc.
This week’s other picks
More new Schumann from Sony Classical features the cellist Sol Gabetta. She plays Cello Concerto in A minor, Op 129 with the Kammerorchester Basel and Giovanni Antonini. Meanwhile, for three works with piano – the Five Pieces in Folk Style, Op 102, the Fantasiestücke, Op 73 and the Adagio and Allegro, Op 70 (better known in the version for horn) – her partner is Bertrand Chamayou. All the performances are historically informed: the Basel orchestra plays with gut strings and Chamayou uses an impressive-sounding Viennese Streicher piano from 1847. While the concerto has plenty of energy and life, even if the orchestral rhythms seem a bit martial at times, the chamber pieces (recorded just last month, according to the sleeve) are only intermittently convincing. In particular, Gabetta makes heavy weather of some of the Op 102 pieces.