Schumann: Songs of Love & Loss

Sarah Connolly; Eugene Asti (Chandos CHAN 10492)

22 September 2008 3.5 stars

Songs of Love and LossAfter being involved together on a well-received series of Mendelssohn songs on Hyperion, Sarah Connolly and Eugene Asti are reunited on this disc for that other enterprising British label, Chandos.

Entitled 'Songs of Love and Loss', this is a well planned programme of Schumann, featuring two of the composer's most famous cycles from the annus mirabilis of 1840, the Eichendorff Liederkreis Op.39 and Frauenliebe und –Leben. The rest of the disc is made up of later songs – the six Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart Op.135, the glorious 'Requiem' from Op.90 and 'Mein schöner Stern!' Op.101 No.4 – which render laughable the suggestion that Schumann's encroaching ill-health prevented him composing further masterpieces towards the end of his life.

With the two song cycles, Connolly is obviously entering a phenomenally crowed field and although there's no doubting the quality of her voice, or the intelligence of her singing, I can't see this new recording dislodging any of the favourites in this repertoire. Part of the problem is that although Connolly and Asti are often very moving in the songs of loss, they sometimes seem less adept, or willing, to let themselves go and create the necessary passion for the songs of love.

The most disappointing song in this regard is probably 'Er, der Herrlichste von allen' from Frauenliebe und –leben. This is a performance that to my ears is taken too slowly for its marking (here the song lasts a couple of seconds under four minutes, some forty seconds longer than Juliane Banse and Graham Johnson, for example, and even half a minute longer than Jessye Norman and Geoffrey Parsons) but Connolly and Asti fail to inject any feeling of real love into it. As such it comes across as a little drab and rather worryingly meek and obeisant, and so emphasises the uncomfortable sexual politics that inform the cycle. It's a shame, too, since when Connolly does let herself go, such as at 'ich will ihm dienen' in 'Du Ring an meinem Finger', the results are thrilling. The same occasional reticence is also apparent in some some of the numbers in the Liederkreis: there's too little sense of urgency and passion in Asti's accompaniment to 'Frühlingsnacht' and 'Schöne Fremde' lacks a feeling of longing and yearning.

I was not totally convinced by the performance of the opening 'In der Fremde' which sounds a little self-consciously miserable and couldn't help finding Asti's way with some of the piano writing in 'Waldesgespräch' a touch fussy, undermining the song's drama. His carefulness also means that 'Zwielicht' does not come across as full of fantasy as it can. However, their approach brings an unusual Mendelssohnian delicacy to the second 'In der Fremde' and they produce a beautiful sense of stillness in 'Mondnacht' – Connolly's control here is particularly entrancing. 'Im Walde', on the other hand, is lively and characterised with enormous imagination.

Throughout, Connolly's German is impeccable and she treats the text in a subtle, non-interventionist way that reflects her obvious intelligence as an artist. There were times  when I missed a certain variety in vocal colour but the voice itself is in wonderful condition, combining a highly feminine richness and with a bright sound and well controlled vibrato. It's surprising, given the power and penetration of Connolly's voice, that Asti too often sounds like he's worried about drowning her out. In the end, then, both cycles are performed with a slight feeling of introspection that will affect all listeners differently, although there's no denying the impact of such an impeccably controlled approach as we hear in songs such as 'Süßer Freund, du blickest'. Both artists, though, put themselves unquestionably at the service of the composer and consistently underline the consummate skill that has gone into these masterly songs.

Temperamentally, though, they seem better suited to the later Lieder which receive considered, beautifully prepared and deeply moving performances. The tragedy contained within the Mary Stuart songs is captured with a chaste seriousness of purpose that seems ideal and they turn in a quietly affecting 'Requiem', producing a stirring climax but wisely avoiding the temptation to give it the operatic treatment.  

The quality of both artists is abundantly clear throughout the whole disc and Chandos' recording captures both the bloom of Connolly's voice and the care she takes with the texts beautifully. There are times when this Schumann could be a bit more red-blooded, from the pianist especially, but this is still a fine addition to Connolly's growing discography.

By Hugo Shirley

Songs of Love & Loss is released on 29 September