Friday 8 December 2023

Dichterliebe Reimagined: Koen van Stade & Neal Peres Da Costa bring creative freedom & musical rhetoric to bear on Schumann's song cycle

Schumann: Dichterliebe; Koen van Stade, Neal Peres da Costa; Deux-Elles Reviewed 8 December 2023

Schumann: Dichterliebe;Koen van Stade, Neal Peres Da Costa; Deux-Elles
Reviewed 8 December 2023

Two performer scholars come together for an interpretation led by surviving evidence of early recordings and treatises to magical and compelling effect

When Julius Stockhausen and Johannes Brahms gave the first public performance of Schumann's Dichterliebe in 1861 (21 years after it was first written) what did it actually sound like? What did Schumann expect it to sound like. That 1861 performance has some currency, after all Brahms had known Robert Schumann well whilst Clara Schumann was still alive and in fact performed Dichterliebe with Stockhausen in 1862. In fact, the bass Robert Blass (1867-1930) studied with Stockhausen and recorded two songs, 'Im wunderschönen Monat Mai' and 'Ich grolle nicht' in 1903, and mezzo-soprano Therese Behr-Schnabel (1876-1959), also a Stockhausen pupil, recorded 'Ich grolle nicht' in 1904.

Whilst orchestras and instrumentalists have mined early recordings for information about performance practice in late 19th and early 20th-century music, these early vocal recordings have not had such currency. Few, if any, singers have attempted to emulate say Adelina Patti's performing style in the arias from Don Giovanni that she recorded. Why not?

Early recordings plus vocal treatises such as those of Manuel García’s (1805–1906) are important sources of information about late 19th century styles of performance. This is only something that has relatively recently been taken on board by Historically Informed Performance. For most of the late 20th century and later, HIP involved instrumentalists performing in period style with singers who might go some way to modifying style but kept a modern technique with its lowered larynx and strict adherence modern musical mores. 

A new recording of Schumann's Dichterliebe from Koen van Stade (tenor) and Neal Peres Da Costa (piano) on Deux-Elles attempts to remedy that. For a start, Peres Da Costa is playing a modern Viennese-Action Grand Piano after one by J. B. Streicher & Sohn, of around 1868. But more importantly both van Stade and Peres Da Costa have been reading those treatises and listening to early recordings to get an idea about performance practice. It is an art rather than a science, a singer's recordings can differ from their known verbal instructions, whilst some performance practices seem never to have been discussed in print. We are talking about tradition of instruction that was still very much oral.

The differences are startling. For a start, singers and pianists had no qualms about modifying the tempo for expressive effect, and the sense of rubato between the two can be palpable. Then there is the singer bringing out the primacy of text over music, and that is before we get to the actual sound of the voice. The 20th century saw various strands of vocal production draw together, the need to create extra resonance and carrying power (bigger venues, heavier orchestrations, louder orchestras), the use of continuous vibrato, and the preponderance of recordings. So that, by the 1940s technique was becoming more uniform.

Listening to the disc, what we first notice is the magical sound of the piano, the notes having a pearly quality to them but also dying away quickly, leaving a lot of space for the voice. Peres Da Costa is very fluid and flexible in his performance, keeping a constant sense of rubato, both long term and short moments. This is linked to van Stade's tempo modification where the words have primacy. 

And there is no shying away from something that you rarely hear nowadays, rhythmic asynchrony. Not only can the pianist's right hand melody move differently to the left hand's regular rhythm, but the same is true of singer and pianist, they use this as an expressive device. Anyone who has heard Chopin played in this style can testify to the expressive power the technique has.

Suddenly these stop being songs and turn into stories, narratives told through music with the poetry prime. Both performers make small changes throughout, responding to individual words and phrases. Completely gone is any sense of beautiful line, van Stade is perfectly capable of doing that but only when the text warrants it. A lot of his vocal devices completely go against what is standard practice nowadays.  His voice production changes constantly, bringing a wonderful array of timbres and sound qualities, all in the service of expressing text and music. 

Listening to this disc, we are aware that both performers are attuned to a different sense of musical rhetoric, a willingness to make constant small-scale changes in the service of expressivity and rhetoric. As the excellent booklet article says:

"The first half of the 20th century saw unprecedented changes in performance style (already heralded in the late 19th century), implementing modern aesthetic qualities of literalness, neatness, precision, and stability in realising the composers’ score. 20th century musicians increasingly judged ‘Romantic’ expressivity as overly sentimental, lacking control and contravening composers’ score indications"

The late 19th-century still promoted the primacy of individual input; long gone were the days of early 19th-century bel canto when singers were almost co-creators, but there was still the sense that an individual's artistic expression breathed life into the notes. Whereas as the 20th century progressed, composer and notes took primacy.

The performers describe this as Dichterliebe Reimagined, but there is also a sense that it is Dichterliebe rediscovered. You realise that it is probably quite an intimate performance, neither performer making a lot of noise. Stockhausen and Brahms' public performance was coming towards the end of a long tradition of more intimate recital.

Not everyone will like this, and it is not definitive. I am sure there were be other interpretations of the sources, but the two bring a confidence and stylistic appositeness to the music. 

And frankly, I loved it.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - Dichterliebe (28:56)
Koen van Stade (tenor)
Neal Peres Da Costa (piano)
Recorded by AudioFile Pty Ltd at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, 10-12 December 2021 
DEUX-ELLES DXL1193 1CD [28:56]

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