Performance Monday, April 25, 2011 | 8 PM

Sylvia Schwartz
Bernarda Fink
Michael Schade
Thomas Quasthoff

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
A recital with any one of these singers would be memorable; a program with them all together is outstanding. In Schumann’s setting of Spanish folk poetry, Schwartz, Fink, Schade, and Quasthoff all show off their skills individually before joining up in the final song. At the heart of this program are Brahms’s two brilliant sets of vocal quartets with their two-piano accompaniment.
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The Program

An Introduction to the Geibel-Heyse Spanisches Liederbuch

For 19th-century inhabitants of what is now Germany—then a conglomeration of individual kingdoms and duchies—Spain was an exotic realm of guitars, sunshine, Moors, brigands, and storied amorous passions. Emanuel Geibel and Paul Heyse capitalized on their century’s fascination with the exotic “other”—there was a cottage industry in travel writing—when they selected and translated an anthology of Spanish verse, from folk poetry to poems by Spain’s poetic elite, and turned them into polished German gems. As soon as their Spanisches Liederbuch went on sale in 1852, composers flocked to it immediately, from Schumann to Brahms to Wolf and many others.

Schumann and His Fantasy-Spain

Schumann did not much like actual travel, but journeying in imagination was another matter. His first “Spanish” Lied was the bolero-song “Der Hidalgo” of 1840 on an original text by Geibel, and “world music” would be a fascination of his for the rest of his brief compositional career. Schumann met the poet in 1846 on four separate occasions; although he would later damn Geibel’s own poetry as fit only for ladies’ dressing tables, the skillful translations of poetry from other lands was another matter.

In his two Spanish cycles of 1849, the Spanisches Liederspiel, Op. 74, and the Spanisches Liebeslieder, he assembles four singers and two pianists for domestic music making; two pianists on one bench exemplify social music making (the opportunities for seduction were there as well), and the changing vocal forces ensure variety. The second set is a pendant to the first: For the better shape of the whole, Schumann had omitted two works from Op. 74; finding them “charming” on a return visit, however, he sought a new framework for them some eight months later. Schumann came to four-hand music late; the Love Songs begin with a piano duet “in bolero tempo” that is truly a “Vorspiel” or overture, as Schumann seems to have written it after the songs; there are echoes of “Tief im Herzen trag’ ich Pein” that follows it. The back-and-forth relationship of the soprano’s music with the piano interludes between phrases is a Schumann hallmark.

Next, it is the tenor’s turn in “O wie lieblich ist das Mädchen,” and he sings the praises of a maiden so graceful and charming that nothing can compare with her beauty—not the sailor’s ship and the stars; not the knight’s armor and battles; not the shepherd’s lambs, fields, and mountains.

Of all the poems in Geibel and Heyse’s anthology, “Bedeckt mich mit Blumen” was a favorite with composers. Schumann’s duet for soprano and alto—it is women who want to die for love—is a sultry dance; the singers’ intricately woven lines at the words “Unter süssen Qualen / Der Liebe” (“from the sweet pains of love”) are among the many beauties of this duet, very unlike Hugo Wolf’s Wagner-tinged strains for solo voice and piano.

Flutenreicher Ebro,” originally composed in another key for Op. 74, is at the heart of op. 138. The Ebro is Spain’s longest river, rising in the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain and draining into a delta between Barcelona and Valencia; with its over-200 tributaries, it is indeed “rich in flood waters.” This consummately lyrical song is one of the brightest gems of this cycle.

The second half begins with “Intermezzo: Nationaltanz,” an earthy, stamping dance of the sort endemic in Spanish music, complete with a drone bass, sudden loud chords, and off-beats. The middle section replaces the macho music of the framing sections with gliding movements; we can almost see the partners as they dance. This sets the scene for the pendant-song to “O wie lieblich ist das Mädchen:” “Weh, wie zornig ist das Mädchen,” in which Schumann leaves out the poet’s line, “Who will be able to reason with her?” From the evidence of this music, the girl is pouting, and the tenor is not taking her anger very seriously. This lovers’ tiff, one suspects, will not last long.

Hoch, hoch sind die Berge” was also originally part of the Op. 74 cycle but was cut because of a disappointing first performance. In this folk-like art song in quasi-Brahmsian mode, an abandoned girl laments to her mother in heartfelt elegiac strains. The beautiful postlude also seems a foreshadowing of Brahms.

A tenor and a bass vie with one another in enthusiasm for a blue-eyed maiden in the male duet, “Blaue Augen hat das Mädchen”—simpler, merrier, and less complicated than the women’s duet in Part I (draw your own conclusions). The postlude is a delightfully tricky, swaggering conclusion to the proceedings.

Schumann saves the full ensemble for the end and gives us a last dance with bolero-like rhythmic figures. In “Dunkler Lichtglanz, blinder Blick,” we hear a catalogue of love’s oxymorons, its happiness and anger, sweetness and bitterness, darkness and light as concluding moral: “All you lovers out there, this is what love is like.” Notably, the quartet fades away as if we were departing both the work and Spain in the final measures.

—Susan Youens

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Brahms’s Liebeslieder-Walzer, Op. 52

Vienna is the city of the “Waltz Kings,” and its adopted son Brahms wrote wonderful specimens of this formerly scandalous dance in which the partners clasp one another as they glide and turn (walzen means “to turn”—hence ecclesiastical disapproval for a time). Here, he takes on a threefold challenge: first, to make the waltz express different facets of love; second, to make its rhythms wonderfully complex without losing the regular pulsations of dance; and third, to devise rich and varied textures for the six musicians who comprise the performing forces: the same as Schumann’s but with different results. The first set of Liebeslieder-Walzer was composed in the midst of Brahms’s unspoken love for Clara and Robert Schumann’s beautiful daughter Julie, and it tells more of dalliance, desire, and ebullience than of despair. That would follow later.

A Word About the Poet

Georg Friedrich Daumer was first a theology student and then a philosopher, an ardent opponent of Christianity and then a fervent convert to Catholicism; he was also a tutor to the mysterious foundling named Kaspar Hauser for four years, from 1828 to 1831. In his Polydora anthology, he roams the world, especially the realms east and north of Austria, in order to translate and paraphrase Russian, Polish, and Hungarian poems in German. Brahms makes them all Viennese.

Transformations of the Waltz

The first song, “Rede, Mädchen, allzu liebes,” is marked “In Ländler tempo,” a reminder that the hearty, stamping country Ländler dance evolved in the mid-to-late 18th century into the more citified, elegant waltz. This one—filled with irresistible coaxing inflections—is couched as a dialogue between the two male singers and the two women; the entreating men’s question (about a rendezvous) and their compliant sweethearts’ answer sound simultaneously at the end.

But emotional turmoil is the Janus-face to love’s happiness, and it appears promptly in the second piece, “Am Gesteine rauscht die Flut.” Brahms’s music dashes itself against the 1-2-3 rhythms of the waltz like the water against the rocks; this is for full quartet, as Love is an equal opportunity tormentor. In the third work, “O die Frauen,” the tenor and the bass sing in praise of all women, without whom they might have become monks. The women in their turn sing in “Wie des Abends schöne Röte” of the desire to “find favor” with just one beloved in whose presence they would glow like the loveliest sunset. Their sighs of desire become everyone’s shared lament for the girl whose lover is far away in “Die grüne Hopfenranke,” which begins with sighing figures (or perhaps low groans) in the bass.

One-third of the way through, a quartet of ardent lovers sings in “Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel,” of a “pretty little bird” that alighted on a “fair hand”; if they could, they would do the same. Since before Mozart’s Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, bird-catchers represent the desire for love, and “flying” has Freudian meanings we all know. This delightful piece is the epitome of Viennese Schwung—that is, a compound of grace, lilt, swing, and sway. The turn to greater warmth in a different key when the bird alights is entrancing.

The first solo of the set follows as the alto sings “Wohl schön bewandt,” the lament of a woman whose lover is no longer interested in her. The sighing figures from earlier love songs in this set reappear in new guise, and the tragic downward trajectory of the singer’s final phrase is a directional symbol of despair. As if in reaction, the eighth song, “Wenn so lind dein Auge mir,” is a plea to the beloved not to let love’s sweet ardor vanish—no wonder all four singers join in concert with that sentiment. The ninth work, “Am Donaustrande,” mostly pairs the trio of alto, tenor, and bass (the rich, warm, low registers that Brahms loved) with fairytale-like sounds in the high treble; only when the 10 bolts on the beloved’s door are dismissed as mere trifles does the soprano join in. The melodic lines in “O wie sanft die Quelle sich” wind sweetly, like the stream of which the quartet sings.

Next, a marvelously vehement outburst ensues in “Nein, es ist nicht auszukommen” about the gossips who always swarm around lovers and misinterpret their every move. Yet another tirade against malicious mouths—one rant is not enough—follows in “Schlosser auf, und mache Schlösser.” Waltzes can even become fiery denunciations of love’s enemies.

With sweetness and light restored, the soprano and alto sing of a little bird in flight—that motif again—in “Vögelein durchrauscht die Luft.” The tenor and bass respond with one of the moments of greatest magic in all of Op. 52: “Sieh, wie ist die Welle klar.” When they hymn the moonlight shining on the waves, Brahms turns suddenly in another harmonic direction, and the hushed effect is sheer enchantment.

The nightingale’s song accompanies the plea for a kiss in the dark in “Nachtigall, sie singt so schön”; as if this tender darkness had somehow unleashed its evil twin, we next hear a lament for lost rapture in “Ein dunkeler Schacht ist Liebe.” In the equation that says “Male lovers = tenor voices,” the solo tenor in “Nicht wandle, mein Licht” tells the beloved that the fields and paths are flooded with his tears, and it is too damp for her to walk there. The way in which the rhythmic layout of the melody pulls against the standard waltz rhythms is a wonderfully subtle mixture of tender love and grief-stricken reproach. The final song, “Es bebet das Gesträuche”—a summation of love’s joy and sorrow—ends softly, in acknowledgement (perhaps) of the tenderness and the temerity of love.

—Susan Youens

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Other Quartets by Brahms

Brahms is one of the few 19th-century composers who thought of vocal-ensemble composition as a serious genre, to be explored in serious ways, as we hear in the four quartets from Op. 64 and Op. 92. “An die Heimat” is a long, deeply felt, wistful remembrance of home, each stanza beginning with the word Heimat, as if to acclaim something sacred. In the middle stanza, the piano falls silent at times to allow the “old songs” to be entirely vocal and the creation of memory, without the instrumental foundation to anchor them in the present.

Three night songs follow, with three different modes of nocturnal enchantment. “Der Abend” is Schiller’s retelling of the love between Phoebus Apollo and the sea-nymph Thetis; we hear both passion and its aftermath in divine rest. In his setting of Daumer’s “O schöne Nacht,” each of the singers is given a solo moment in the moonlight before joining together in sympathy with the lad stealing off to a rendezvous with his beloved. In his “Abendlied,” the tragic dramatist and poet Friedrich Hebbel hymns the change in our very being ushered in by night, when joy and sorrow vanish that we might sleep. The ending of this quartet, with the music too drifting off to sleep, is entrancing.

—Susan Youens

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Brahms’s Neue Liebeslieder-Walzer

Brahms’s Neue Liebeslieder-Walzer (New Love-Song Waltzes) are more serious in their mood than the first set, the writing for piano more complex—and no wonder. When Clara Schumann told Brahms that her daughter was engaged to an Italian nobleman, Brahms was visibly upset (neither mother nor daughter had known of his feelings until then). On Julie’s wedding day, Brahms gave Clara the score of his great choral masterpiece, the Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53, which he called a Brautgesang, or bridal song; it ends with the prayer of a solitary person for the healing of heartache.

The first love song, “Verzicht, O Herz, auf Rettung,” begins with the pianists heading in different directions at once—the treble pianist going upwards, the bass pianist going downwards—in what is both a Brahmsian love of counterpoint and, perhaps, a symbol of what happens to two people in love. This emphatic quartet constitutes an initial warning: For those who love, there is no rescue. The second waltz, also for full quartet, “Finstere Schatten der Nacht,” continues the stormy forebodings: Those who remain firmly rooted on land do not know the perils of love’s high seas and desolation.

An jeder Hand die Finger” is a wistful song for solo soprano and piano; the persona has given away each of the rings her loving brother gave her to a handsome, but unworthy, young man who, so we infer, has abandoned her. The sudden warmth and richness in the music when she invokes his beauty is heartbreaking. By contrast, the passionate baritone of “Ihr schwarzen Augen” sings of an irresistible, Helen-like siren at whose gaze kingdoms fall: How could he resist? In “Wahre, wahre deinen Sohn,” a contralto siren warns her neighbor to guard her son against the singer’s wiles, but with music like this, we can bet on the seductress, not the mother.

Another wistful song for the lovelorn soprano follows: “Rosen steckt mir an die Mutter.” This Spanish mother transplanted to Vienna has, with what seems a singular lack of tact, given her daughter roses, but the daughter can only think that they too, like her, will wither when stripped of their leaves. The full quartet sings the passionate declaration of the lover’s desire to give the beloved “one hundred thousand kisses” in “Vom Gebirge, Well’ auf Well’”; Brahms uses the wonderfully emphatic octave figures in the bass to cut across and activate the waltz rhythms.

For the eighth number at the center of the cycle, “Weiche Gräser im Revier,” all four singers dream of a pastoral retreat in Nature where one can “rest” with one’s beloved. In the second half, the way in which Brahms’s music rises from blissful calm to a peak of intensity, then sinks back down again, is exquisite.

The soprano solo songs in this cycle are among its glories, including “Nagen am Herzen.” In “Ich kose süß mit der und der,” the archetypal lover-tenor sings of cozening this girl, yet to no avail: He cannot stop thinking of Nonna. We are then invited to imagine that it is Nonna who gives him a spirited tongue-lashing for his multiple flirtations in “Alles, alles in den Wind” following right after. The soprano can, we are glad to discover, do more than lament.

The dark forest of the innermost mind surrounds the suffering lover in the quartet, “Schwarzer Wald, dein Schatten” as he sings, “The one thing you value stands before you, but a happy union is forbidden forever.” As if to counter an unhappiness Brahms knew all too well, we next hear a duet in which the soprano and the alto tell the beloved not to sit so close, not to look so ardently, lest the world discover their mutual love for one another. Brahms sets “Nein, Geliebter, setze dich” above an ostinato, or repeated-note bass—both the heartbeat of love and the foundation of this music. A final passionate declaration of love and fiery sorrow for the “adorable young man” follows in “Flammenauge, dunkles Haar” before the beautifully wrought conclusion.

In this final work, “Zum Schluss,” Brahms leaves Daumer’s world-roving anthology to set the final verse of Goethe’s 1796 elegy “Alexis und Dora” to music. The Greek youth Alexis is seized with love for Dora as his ship is leaving; he mourns the loss of the love he could never have as the shore recedes from view. Brahms’s six-note ground bass (a Renaissance and Baroque device consisting of a repetitive bass pattern, with the music above it varied) is a quotation from the solitary persona’s prayer for surcease at the close of his Alto Rhapsody for contralto, orchestra, and male chorus, also to words by Goethe. Brahms was a reticent man who shied away from self-revelation, but the contrapuntal artistry, long-breathed lines (a characteristic of Brahms), and “Amen” ending (another hallmark) of this prayer to the Muses seem deeply personal.

—Susan Youens

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Sponsored by Chubb Group of Insurance Companies
The Trustees of Carnegie Hall gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Jean Stein, whose contribution honors the memory of Edward W. Said and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
This performance is part of Great Singers I, Great Singers I Mini, and Vocal Adrenaline.