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7.5.09

Listening Again to Women's Lives and Loves

available at Amazon
B. Fink / R. Vignoles

(2002, re-released 2008)
Harmonia Mundi Gold HMG 501753
60'25"

available at Amazon
M.-N. Lemieux, D. Blumenthal

(released April 28, 2009)
Naïve V 5159
64'08"

Online scores:
Schumann, Frauenliebe und -leben, op. 42
Last night Magdalena Kožená's recital at the Austrian Embassy (review forthcoming tomorrow) included a performance of Schumann's song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben. It is one of the few song cycles sung exclusively by women, having been specifically cast in a woman's narrative voice, although in a subservient way by Adalbert von Chamisso's poetry, at least by 21st-century standards ("Let me in reverence, / Let me in humility, / Let me bow to my master" -- Mrs. Ionarts says this sort of thing to me all the time -- NOT). Schumann composed the set in just two days, July 11 and 12 -- along with over 100 other songs, more than half the songs he would produce in his entire life -- in 1840, the "song year" of his courtship and eventual, although contested marriage to Clara Wieck. Two recordings of this cycle have recently crossed my desk, both by voices much different in timbre compared to La Kožená.

The older one, by the formidable mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, has just been re-released by Harmonia Mundi on its discounted Gold label. Fink's voice can have this vibrato-powered edge to it, giving a rich color at times and an occasionally grainy quality at others -- recently it has worked well for Mozart but not so much for Bach. It works quite well for Schumann, making her Frauenliebe an intense experience, incarnating a woman who experiences strong emotions of love and devotion in a powerful but introspective way (a degree or two under the intensity of Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, whose 1999 live recording with Julius Drake was also released last year). Fink bookends the cycle, very attractively, with the op. 90 Lieder, an 1850 set on texts by Nikolaus Lenau, providing a somewhat lighter counterpoint on love, as well as a handful or two of individual songs in between, including two songs from Myrthen, the composer's wedding present to Clara.

The fifth song of Frauenliebe refers to the garland of blossoming myrtle (Myrthen) that the anxious bride's sisters help her wrap around her head on her wedding day. The Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux also included two songs from Myrthen on her new Frauenliebe disc, with pianist Daniel Blumenthal, who completed part of his musical studies at American University here in Washington. Schumann's intended voice part was a soprano, but for most of the cycle he avoids the voice's highest register, making mezzo-sopranos with some power at the top often the most satisfying voice types. Lemieux's voice is not only set lower than most of the competition but fuller and rounder, satiny more than reedy, all in all a very satisfying listen. It is also one of the most drawn-out performances, in that her timings, especially for the slow songs, are quite a bit longer than average. It's a deliberate but not stolid interpretation, a nice antidote to the one that remains my favorite, the emotionally over-the-top Anne Sofie von Otter (a 1996 recording with Bengt Forsberg). Lemieux pairs the Frauenliebe cycle with another 1840 set, the op. 39 Liederkreis (poetry by Eichendorff) and a handful of individual songs.

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