Performance Saturday, May 12, 2012 | 8 PM

Christian Gerhaher
András Schiff

Zankel Hall
Christian Gerhaher is “a baritone with a rich tone and a seemingly infallible ear for dramatic phrasing” (The New York Times) who shines brightly when singing lieder on the concert stage. He joins Perspectives artist András Schiff for an evening of enduring songs devoted to the pains of love, including Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
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The Program

An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98; "Adelaide," Op. 46

As a songwriter, Beethoven sits in the shadow of Schumann, Schubert, and the other great Romantic masters of lieder—as well as his own reputation as a titan of instrumental music. As he said, "Whenever I hear music in my inner ear, it is always the full orchestra that I hear. When writing vocal music, I invariably have to ask myself: Can it be sung?" But his attachment to the poetry of his era—especially that of Goethe and Schiller—was deep, and his contributions to the genre significant. As he did in every musical form he tackled, Beethoven pushed songwriting far beyond the limits of what his contemporaries were doing; in his vocal masterpiece An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), he created the first fully integrated song cycle.

Over the course of his career, Beethoven composed some 80 songs, mostly to German texts. "Adelaide" is an early song written around 1794 to 1795 during his first years in Vienna as he worked to establish himself as a star in the city's musical life. He apparently was very pleased with this song, which he kept refining over the years; in fact, he made his last public appearance as a pianist accompanying it at a concert in 1815. Like An die ferne Geliebte, it blends nature imagery with expressions of love. The poet is Friedrich von Matthisson, who unfortunately expressed his dislike for Beethoven's setting after the composer sent it to him. Perhaps this was because it is an unusually elaborate song for the period, structured almost like an instrumental sonata with an "exposition" (first two stanzas), a more animated and harmonically wandering "development" (third stanza), and an expansive, almost operatic "recapitulation" and coda in a faster tempo. The piano part is also quite elaborate, showing off Beethoven's prowess as a keyboard virtuoso.

Created two decades later in April 1816, An die ferne Geliebte is a work written in Beethoven's full maturity. The poetry for its six songs was written—perhaps at the composer's request—by Alois Jeitteles, a young medical student and poet involved in Vienna's theatrical scene. It's quite possible that Beethoven intended it as an expression of his undying love for his "Immortal Beloved," believed to be the married Antonie Brentano from whom he separated himself several years earlier to avoid temptation.

This cycle expands upon the theme of love experienced through the beauties of nature that is touched on in "Adelaide." Here, the poet wishes to re-establish communication with the beloved through the medium of the natural world that separates them. The six songs are tightly linked together by brief harmonic and tempo transitions in the piano. Bringing the cycle to a full-circle conclusion, the final song uses the melody of the first song for its final stanza and then develops it into a faster, more ardent coda.

Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper finds these beautiful songs to be a combination of the artless (simple, folk-like melodies) and the sophisticated (harmonic structures and subtle expressive details) characteristics of Beethoven's late-period music. Especially remarkable is the cycle's mood of serenity and acceptance that the singer must remain separated from his beloved—qualities completely opposite to the similarly bereft lover's anguish in Schumann's Dichterliebe.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Dichterliebe, Op. 48

The year 1840 was Robert Schumann's "Year of Song." In previous years, he had only dabbled in song composition, concentrating more on piano works. That February, he suddenly became possessed by the excitement of setting words to music. By the beginning of 1841, he had created more than 130 songs, including his greatest song cycle, Dichterliebe (Poet's Love). Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau explains that the cycle's title was probably drawn from a line by Rückert: "The love of the poet has always met with ill fortune."

Coming from a literary family (his father was a writer and book publisher), words were as equally important as the music to Schumann. From childhood, Schumann was a voracious yet discriminating reader; by adulthood, he was earning some of his living as a music critic and as founder and editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. The Dichterliebe cycle incorporates 16 poems drawn from Heinrich Heine's collection Lyrisches Intermezzo. Schumann arranged them into a narrative drama of love briefly enjoyed, then irrevocably lost. Drawing on his experience with piano music, he cast the pianist as more than a mere accompanist, but rather a revealer of true and nuanced emotions beneath the singer's relatively straightforward declamation.

Simplicity and brevity characterize the first five songs in which the poet moves from the bliss of love to the first intimations that his feelings may not be returned. The majestic sixth song, "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome," is the first unambiguous expression of lost love. The image here is the magnificent cathedral at Cologne on the banks of the Rhine. Inspired by Bach's chorale preludes, the piano dominates with a powerful descending motive. The singer's lines follow the simple but expressive shape of a Baroque chorale.

In "Ich grolle nicht," the high drama, wide range, and heroic weight are drawn from grand opera style. Yet Heine's irony is captured by this exaggerated musical rhetoric: the vehement pounding of the piano's chords, the massive octaves in the left hand, and the singer's angry repetitions of the phrase "Ich grolle nicht" ("I bear no grudge").

"Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen" features another brilliantly dominant piano part in a whirlwind, nightmarish waltz during which the poet imagines himself at his former lover's wedding feast. In the exquisitely poignant 10th song, "Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen," the piano subtly takes the lead with an illustration of weeping that grows stronger and more painful in the postlude. Contrasting with this sincerity, "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen" is a bitterly ironic recital of the classic story of unrequited love. It masquerades as a bluff folk song with a pedestrian three-chord cadence.

The most beautiful of the songs, "Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen" is graced by a ravishing piano part whose eloquent postlude appears again later at the end of the cycle. The unexpected harmonic progressions in the vocal line are wonderfully expressive of sorrow and regret.

The next three songs explore the world of dreams. In "Ich hab' im Traum geweinet," the singer carries the song's miserable burden in a stark, unaccompanied recitative, while the piano is reduced to muttered interjections. In "Aus alten Märchen," the piano's heraldic theme crafts a fairytale dream world where the poet tries in vain to escape his real-life sorrows. Schumann delights in the verse's colorful, sensual imagery. But the song later becomes more realistic; in music marked "with inmost feeling," the singer expresses his desire to escape from the world but also his understanding that there is none.

Fischer-Dieskau calls "Die alten, bösen Lieder"—the cycle's final song—"a grotesque and extravagant showpiece." The piano sets the mock-heroic tone with brawny octaves, then underlines the humor by exaggerating the first beat of each measure. The singer's phrases, too, are grandiosely dramatic. At the close, Schumann adds a touch of genuine feeling to Heine's punch line that the ironic poet probably never intended. He closes with a beautiful postlude of consolation expanded from the 12th song, which serves as a sublime summation for the entire cycle.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Selections from Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, Op. 98a

Writer and thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a god to nearly all great Austro-German songwriters of the 19th century. No one worshipped him more than Schumann: His Szenen aus Goethes Faust (Scenes from Goethe's Faust) was one of his most striking orchestral works. The year 1849 was the centennial of Goethe's birth; in commemoration, the composer turned to his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship) for a series of nine lieder based on song texts found within the story. Among these songs are four written for the mysterious, half-mad Harper, an old man who is the father of the book's heroine, Mignon, unbeknownst to them both. His sorrows are grounded in a long-ago guilty affair with a woman who turned out to be his sister.

The "Ballade des Harfners" is a dramatic scena in which the Harper appears in his public role as a court minstrel. Schumann uses grandly rolled chords in the piano to imitate his harp. This is a challenging song for the singer, who must portray three roles—narrator, king, and Harper—and many moods while encompassing an enormous vocal range. For his reward, the Harper spurns a golden chain and asks instead for a glass of the best wine. Schumann biographer John Daverio suggests this wine symbolically represents "the act of creation," the artist's true reward.

"Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß" ("He who never ate his bread with tears") and "Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt" ("He who gives himself over to solitude") are the grimly disillusioned songs Wilhelm Meister overhears the Harper sing when he comes to visit him in his bare attic room. In the first of these songs, the Harper's bitterness is expressed with uncompromising vehemence, while the pianist builds his harp arpeggios into a virtuosic display. The second song is quiet and introspective, as the Harper muses that even when he is alone, he has a companion (pain) that never leaves him. This song is remarkable for its tonal instability; pianist Graham Johnson finds the music to be a portrait of mental wandering in madness, something Schumann knew all too well.

Coming from later in the book, "An die Türen will ich schleichen" ("I will steal from door to door") shows the old man shuffling from house to house begging for his bread, his footsteps captured in the piano. A little four-note descending motive fills the music; Johnson believes it represents his bows as he receives the handouts. The pale-colored vocal line illustrates his burned-out state. At the end, the tempo becomes slower and slower as he wanders from our sight.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"The Spirit's Song," Hob. XXVIa:41; "Content," Hob. XXVIa: 36; "Trost unglücklicher Liebe," Hob. XXVIa: 9; "Geistliches Lied," Hob. XXVIa: 17; "The Wanderer," Hob. XXVIa:32

In 1781 and 1784, Haydn published two books, each containing 12 German songs. Poetry was not a consuming interest for Haydn, demonstrated by the fact that he relied on a councilor at the Esterházy court to select suitable verse for him. We hear two of these songs—"Trost unglücklicher Liebe" ("Consolation for Unhappy Love") from the 1781 collection and "Geistliches Lied" ("Sacred Song") from 1784—both set to anonymous texts.

Surprisingly, Haydn created his finest songs to English texts (quite apart from his more than 400 arrangements of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish folksongs). The impetus was his friendship with Anne Hunter, wife of a prominent British surgeon, during his two prolonged visits to London in the 1790s. Mrs. Hunter showed him some of her poems, which inspired two sets of songs in English published in 1794 and 1795; additional songs followed, including "The Spirit's Song," which, though published in 1800, was probably written about the same time. In the midst of writing his "London" symphonies, Haydn was at the peak of his powers, and that spilled over into these much more subtle and imaginative songs. "The Spirit's Song" has a particularly fine piano part, as rich in atmosphere as a Schubert lied, while the spooky chromatically ascending and descending lines in the voice create a marvelously uncanny effect. The composer actually set the music of the charming pastoral song "Content" to two similar anonymous poems: The first emphasizes the shepherd's passion for his lover, while the song we hear this evening focuses more on his happiness with his modest life. For Hunter's poem "The Wanderer," Haydn makes artful use of chromatic colorings in melody and harmonies for this Gothic evocation of things that go bump in the night.

—Janet E. Bedell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Perspectives: András Schiff
This concert and the Pure Voice series are sponsored by the Jean & Jula Goldwurm Memorial Foundation in memory of Jula Goldwurm.

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