It's difficult when presented with a disc of Schumann, sung by a francophone contralto, not to think immediately of Natalie Stutzmann. Luckily, Marie-Nocole Lemieux, rather than suffering by the comparison, has presented a passionate and fresh view of these two great cycles – Op.39 Liederkreis and Frauenliebe und –leben – that only makes me want to hear her in more of the great Lieder repertoire.
Her decision to insert a powerful performance of 'Die Löwenbraut', a Chamisso setting from Op.31, between the two cycles provides an important link between them. In so doing, too, she helps let the darker Romantic sensibility of the Liederkreis also inform the Chamisso cycle. The lion's reaction to his 'bride' being taken away for a life of matrimony in the single song helps give Frauenliebe und –leben a wonderful, determined feel: unlike with Sarah Connolly's rather reticent recent account on Chandos, you get the welcome feeling the Lemieux's 'Frau' is not quite the push-over she can be.
Lemieux's voice, it has to be said, has a lot to do with how one hears her interpretation. A rich and powerful instrument which also displays a biting edge, it's a voice that is predisposed to characterful, ardent performances of this repertoire. And that is exactly what we get from the start of the Liederkreis. Straight away, there's an urgent feeling of trepidation and anticipation in 'In der Fremde' followed by audible emotional excitement in 'Intermezzo'. Lemieux isn't afraid to throw in the odd sharp intake of breath, either, to heighten the intensity and seems to live an breath each moment. Her 'Waldesgespräch', too, is acted out with whole-hearted abandon, culminating in a final, fearsome chest-voice 'Wald'. Arguably the voice is a bit rich for some of the smaller numbers, but Lemieux is adept at paring it down and introducing some levity, as well as spinning a soft, seductive line in 'Mondnacht', 'Wehmut' or 'Zweilicht'. She finishes with a performance of 'Frühlingsnacht' that manages to balance an excited tentativeness with bubbling passion.
These same qualities are there in Frauenliebe und –leben, starting with a deeply sensuous and heartfelt 'Seit ich ihn gesehen'. Immediately, whatever one's view of the Chamisso's poetry, informed by what one might euphemistically describe as a slightly old-fashioned masculine view of sexual politics, we seem to be dealing with real feelings of a passionate woman rather than the dutiful worship of a meek wife. As such, the poems and Schumann's glorious settings seem imperiously to rise above such criticisms. Again it's the persuasiveness of the voice itself and Lemieux's impassioned delivery that triumph so that each song is brought to life as a mini-monologue of a character of nobility and strength.
No doubt there will be some who find Lemieux's approach too strongly characterised and it's a way of performing Schumann that slightly bucks what seem to be the present trend for holding back, of – emotionally speaking – less being more. Yet although one should be wary of glibly calling upon well-worn biographical details of any composer's life it doesn't seem too trite to think of Schumann's annus mirabilis, 1840, when he composed, among scores of others, all the songs on this present recital, as being a year of passion and relief as the obstacles to his love for Clara slowly began to give way.
In the end, however, although there's a risk occasionally of Lemieux slightly overburdening some of the lighter songs on this disc, she draws the listener into the heart of each and every song. For that reason, this has to count as one of the most engaging and moving Schumann Lieder discs I've heard in a while.
By Hugo Shirley
CD Review: Schumann Heine Lieder from Florian Boesch (Onyx)
CD Review: Sarah Connolly sings Frauenliebe und -Leben (Chandos)
CD Review: Heine Lieder from Gerald Finley and Julius Drake (Hyperion)
CD Review: Volume 11 of Hyperion's Schumann Song Edition