Alex Ross, author of the magnificent book and the blog “The Rest is Noise,” kindly linked here yesterday. I noticed he’s also linked to a video of Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the Canadian contralto. I introduced myself to her singing while on a lazy country drive last weekend. The disk in question is Lemieux’s 2008 Schumann songs on Naïve. Her collection includes “Die Frauenliebe und Leben,” Op. 42. I know it’s sacrilege to compare this compact little cycle to the great ones, to put it in the same league as Dichterliebe. But, perhaps because it’s the most overtly “cyclical” of the cycles, with a tidy, if rather politically incorrect narrative of a supposedly typical woman’s life, I find it dense and sad and deeply meaningful. Yes, its poetry boils down to: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes an unnamed baby in a baby carriage. But the way in which the piano frames the opening to the first song and the epitaph to the last one—a sudden intrusion of death on the domestic scene—suggests something elemental. We limp through life until, if we’re lucky, we find love. And then loss inevitably finds us and we limp offstage. Schumann’s setting of a halting piano theme that brings the cycle full circle also hints at the interchangeability of people, the existentially terrifying and joyful sense that while our emotions are of the utmost moment to us, they are not very different from other people’s emotions and we all share in a grand if never declared democracy of happiness and misery.
Which is to say I find more profundity in this cycle than most critics do. Or perhaps I’m just partial to its snappy tunes. When the heroine describes the physical beauty of her beloved, or the pleasure of nursing a baby, Schumann’s music rises to its most exuberantly happy. Lemieux, a contralto, is sometimes a little understated in these songs, floating with a gentle smile on the surface of the music rather than suggesting the mania of joy beneath it. But otherwise I think her voice is completely lovely, rich but not gravelly, and absolutely flexible enough to make the music detailed and intimate. She tends to simplicity. Indeed, the last song, in which death makes its entrance, tying the solitude of loneliness to the solitude of grief, is sung with affecting detachment, as if it was all a foregone conclusion. Which it is/was. Even the pianist, Daniel Blumenthal, eschews the assertive dynamic markings and sforzando emphasis in the recitative-like announcement of: “Now for the first time, you have given me pain…”
Lemieux is still in her early thirties, and she’s already a fine lieder singer. The disk ends with another simple, unaffected rendition, this time of “Widmung.” If Schumann concentrated the arc of love into eight miniatures in “Die Frauenliebe und Leben,” here he distills love yet further, into one single ecstatic statement. Ruckert’s verse ends: “Mein gutter geist, mein bessres Ich,” as beautiful a sentiment as a poet has written.