There have been more or less complete surveys of Robert Schumann’s songs on disc before – in the late 1970s the peerless Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded all the songs he thought suitable for a baritone, while Hyperion’s Schumann edition, planned by Graham Johnson and completed in 2009, used a whole range of soloists. But Christian Gerhaher’s project with his regular pianist Gerold Huber, which began in 2018 with a disc that included the Op 35 Kerner-Lieder, is the first attempt at comprehensiveness by just a single singer.
It’s undoubtedly a fine, constantly rewarding set, with every song delivered with the fastidious attention to detail and to the individual colouring of each phrase that has always been a feature of Gerhaer’s lieder singing. Strictly speaking, though, it’s not the one-man achievement that the packaging and publicity suggest. Though Gerhaher does sing the bulk of the solo songs, some are assigned to others: for instance, he shares the Op 25 collection Myrthen with Camilla Tilling, while the song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben is taken by another soprano, Julia Kleiter, with further singers recruited for the duets and part-songs with piano.
Male singers do tackle Frauenlieben und -leben, but it’s understandable that it should be sung here by a woman. Yet Gerhaher’s decision to share the Myrthen songs still seems odd, especially as the opening number, Widmung, which is given to Tilling, is one of Schumann’s greatest, most personal songs, with which the composer dedicated the whole collection to his future wife Clara on the eve of their wedding. But Gerhaher’s performances of the three great song cycles, the two Liederkreis Op 24 and Op 39, and Dichterliebe, naturally form the focal points of the collection, and it’s fascinating to compare this performance of the latter with the recording Gerhaher made with Huber in 2003. The two are broadly similar; Gerhaher’s tone has darkened slightly over 15 years, and the tempi in the later version are marginally slower, the effect more deliberate, though the weighting of every word is as precise as ever.
It’s interesting too that the earlier disc also included the Op 90 Lenau settings. In his essay with the new recordings, Gerhaher emphasises his admiration for the later songs, those composed in 1849 and 1850, which he thinks are seen unfairly as inferior to the products of Schumann’s famous “year of song”, 1840; he regards Op 90 as the finest of these later groups and places it at the very end of this collection. If the ordering on the 11 discs is sometimes hard to navigate, the set is packaged with full texts, translations and a useful index, as well as brief notes on each opus by Gerhaher himself. Schumann lovers will find it irresistible.