Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Schumanns at Home - songs by Clara & Robert, plus Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin & Hector Berlioz

Robert & Clara Schumann
Robert & Clara Schumann
The Schumanns at Home - Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn, Frederick Chopin, Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann; Sophie Bevan, Julius Drake; Temple Song at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 23 2018 Star rating: 4.0
An imaginative programme wonderfully performed, showcasing songs by the Schumanns and their circle

A visit to the Schumann's apartment in Leipzig inspired the latest of pianist Julius Drake's Temple Song recitals at Middle Temple Hall on Monday 22 January 2018. For The Schumann's At Home Julius Drake was joined by soprano Sophie Bevan to present a programme of songs by Clara and Robert Schumann and their distinguished composer visitors, imagining Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn, Frederick Chopin, Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz all visiting at the same time. The resulting soiree presented songs by each of the seven composers as well as taking in distinguished poet visitors too, Hans Christian Anderson, Joseph von Eichendorff and Heinrich Heine.

The beauty of the programme was its democratic nature, four songs from each of the composers with Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn showcased as much as their more famous husband and brother. Of the 28 songs in the recital, the majority were new to me, and illuminating experience in its own right.

We opened with Clara Schumann; quotations in Richard Stokes' programme note made it clear that Clara did not find composing songs easy. But a very clear personality seemed to emerge from the four songs we heard - Liebst du um Schönheit, Sie liebten sich beide, Der Mond kommt still gegangen, Am Strande - warm and thoughtful, calmy considered rather than impulsive. Each received a beautifully engaged performance from Sophie Bevan. I was particularly struck by  Der Mond kommt still gegangen with its magical vocal line unfolding over a shimmering piano, but the vividly passionate account of Am Strande showed Clara Schumann did not just write slow music!


Hector Berlioz
Hector Berlioz
Songs by Fanny Mendelssohn followed, Frühling, Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass, Nachtwanderer and Bergeslust. Sophie Bevan positively erupted with joy in the first song, whilst the second was rather haunting with its lilting melody. The group closed with the vibrant joy of the vigorous Am Strande.

Felix Mendelssohn's songs remain a relatively undiscovered trove, perhaps because he failed to produce any great song cycles comparable to those of Schubert and Schumann, but individual songs are notable. Die Liebende schreibt was full of gently wistful melancholy whilst Sophie Bevan projected Pagenlied with charm and sly delight as a page described his illicit wooing of his love. Schilflied combined a haunting vocal melody with rippling piano, whilst the lively Hexenlied was given a dazzling performance by Sophie Bevan, complete with vibrant projection of the text.

We finished the first half with a group of songs by Frederick Chopin. These are all relatively early works, written before he left Poland, but Schumann certainly admired Chopin and was delighted to be able to meet him in 1836. Handsome Lad sets a folk song, a young woman describing her lover all in mazurka rhythm. Sophie Bevan and Julius Drake gave a delightful performance, and Sophie Bevan's projection of the Polish text was vivid done here and in the other songs. Dumka was full of haunting melancholy, whilst Lithuanian song was a delightful dialogue between a reproving mother and sly daughter, characterfully captured by Sophie Bevan. The final song, The Warrior was Chopin's response to the events of the November 1830 Uprising, full of military galop in the piano and vivid description in the vocal line.

After the interval we heard a group of Liszt's songs. Liszt did not start writing songs in earnest until his 1840 visit to Schumann; by letter, Liszt had already encouraged Schumann to write chamber music so perhaps their meeting inspired Liszt to start on songs. His songs often exist in multiple versions, unsurprisingly can have complex piano parts. Die stille Wasserrose was a picture of suspended animation, with an atmospheric web of sound in the piano and harmonic uncertainty in the voice. In a number of songs, it was fascinating how Liszt dared to push the conventional harmonic envelope. The haunting Ihr Glocken von Marling also had an atmospheric piano part, whilst M Rhein, im schönen Strome combined a rippling piano with a flowing voice, and again a pushing of tonality.  Der du von dem Himmel bist had quite a direct vocal line with a richly complex piano part, and then the two merged in the astonishingly passionate close.

Frederic Chopin
Frederic Chopin
The four songs by Berlioz showed the remarkable range of his writing in this genre though a couple have links to larger scale orchestral works too. Chant de bonheur was a rather declamatory piece, with the vocal line surrounded by a more elaborate piano part that seemed to call out for the orchestral version. Petit oiseau took a rather light subject (a little bird singing at dawn), and added a layer of seriousness in the musical setting with its substantial piano accompaniment. Adieu, Bessy set a poem by Thomas Moore, a fairly straightforward lyrical vocal line again surrounded by complex accompaniment. Finally Zaide which was a delightful bolero, with Sophie Bevan giving us some vivid story telling.

Finally a group of Robert Schumann's songs. First Widmung from Myrthen, Robert's wedding present to Clara, here in a performance which was warmly passionate with beautifully modulated phrasing. Muttertraum (setting Adelbert von Chamisso's translation of Hans Christian Anderson) was quiet and intense, with Schumann's accompaniment rather evoking Bach, and then the strange final verse (when the raven threatens the young baby) vividly, yet quietly done. Die Einsiedler was quiet and thoughtful with Sophie Bevan showing wonderful control, and finally a vivid account of Aufträge with its dazzlingly fleet piano part.

Throughout the concert it was notable how Sophie Bevan was really involved in each song, capturing its essence and giving performances which were wonderfully engaging whilst never veering into the overly operatic. This programme of relatively unknown songs worked so well because Sophie Bevan and Julius Drake invested so much in each song, creating an imaginative and absorbing programme.

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