Tag Archives: Schumann

Dresden Staatskapelle at the Kennedy Center

There was nothing flashy and a lot to admire in last night’s Kennedy Center performance by the Dresden Staatskapelle, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. The brass sounded almost muted throughout most of the evening, and when they finally played a proper, blaring fortissimo, in the final pages of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, it was clear they weren’t in their comfort zone. The best moments of the concert were the small-scale ones, details of wind playing, pianissimo strings, moments when conductor Daniel Harding’s surfeit of good ideas came together into a unified and compelling performance.

But there was also something rather unfinished about the performance, which is odd given that the Staatskapelle is one of the world’s greatest orchestras. Harding, still in his mid 30s, had a spectacular rise to fame about a decade ago, and more recently has suffered the inevitable and often cruel second thoughts of critics who once acclaimed him a wunderkind. He seems very gifted, and smart, and interested in the nuance of music rather than the splashy effects. But I don’t think every moment of this performance had the precision and intellectual control that a more seasoned conductor would bring to it. The winds, for all their delicate beauty in the third movement of the Brahms, were also prone to sloppy, staggered entrances. And while the conductor was expert at dynamic balance and shaping answering phrases in his accompaniment of pianist Rudolf Buchbinder in the Schumann Piano Concerto, there were a couple of moments when soloist and orchestra weren’t playing together, surprising lapses in a performance that was otherwise very satisfying.

So a mixed evening. Buchbinder is old school, and modest enough in his playing to forge a proper, symphonic account of the concerto rather than a piano spectacle with orchestral background noise. The Staatskapelle is gorgeous to listen to (though the upper string sound is a bit harsh under the gruesome acoustical light of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall), and they play Brahms with a gentle, easy familiarity. But Harding didn’t manage to clarify the orchestration of Schumann’s Manfred Overture (the first piece on the program), and his Brahms was sporadically interesting but not polished. The audience, however, didn’t mind. The orchestra received the usual standing ovation.

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Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Schumann

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.

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