I’d rather be baffled than bored by a recording, and a new recording of songs by Clara Schumann is a baffler. Jörg Waschinski has just released “Ich stand in dunklen Träumen,” a collection of Mrs. Schumann’s lieder on Phoenix Edition. It is a very curious effort.
Waschinski is a male soprano from Berlin, and there’s nothing surprising in his attraction to the songs of Clara (wife and widow of Robert and for almost half a century the most ardent partisan of his music). And there is nothing surprising in a countertenor or sopranist moving into the romantic lieder repertory. But Waschinski isn’t just singing Clara’s songs, he’s fundamentally rethinking them. The piano accompaniments have been arranged for string quartet, the singing is eccentric, and the disk is presented with the conviction (found in the program notes) that “nearly all the compositions were written at one and the same time for sopranos and male characters.”
We should be a little skeptical here, especially when the notes also announce that “there have been hitherto no recordings of note” of Clara’s songs. Anyone interested in this repertoire is advised to bypass Waschinski’s disk and start with a Hyperion recording, featuring baritone Stephan Loges and soprano Susan Gritton. The singing is smooth and sensitive and the songs are engaging, sophisticated and emotionally powerful. Loges and Gritton definitely call into question any notion that the songs are adequately served only by sopranos, or that the voice of the poems is easily reduced to fixed gender identities.
Waschinski’s disk makes a very different and rather bizarre impression. Arranging lieder for instrumental ensemble isn’t new (Lotte Lehmann made some wonderful recordings of Robert’s songs with arranged accompaniments). But the string quartet arrangements heard here tend to work best for songs, such as the title track or “Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage,” in which the pace of harmonic motion or piano writing suggest chorale figures. In busier passages, such as the accompaniment to “Das Veilchen” the string quartet (the Aulos String Quartet Berlin) doesn’t add much and is even cumbersome.
But when you first hear the male soprano with the sustained and somewhat brittle sound of the string quartet, it’s a time warp. The voice sounds old in two distinct ways: like the voice of an aging soprano, and reminiscent of voices captured on early recordings from a century ago. Which is to say, it is very fey, quaint and otherworldly.
And so, despite the best efforts of countertenors everywhere to divorce gender from singing—to sing with high but not distinctly feminine voices—Waschinski brings the whole gender thing roaring back. You can’t hear him without thinking that you are listening to a rather precise and precious lady of the old school warble through the songs of Clara with thorough commitment if not perfect technique.
I can’t recommend this recording to anyone who isn’t passionately curious about every flavor of countertenor and male soprano. But it’s a refreshing reminder that the male soprano can still be an exotic, outrageous and unsettling sound. Though I’d hate for this to be anyone’s sole exposure to Clara’s music, it doesn’t do it any serious disservice. Despite not having a particularly good top, and not attending much to the line or the niceties of phrasing, Waschinski is an expressive singer. And in some weird way, these interpretations feel like they’re born of feminine solidarity, except the woman singing isn’t a woman, and she’s not all that good.