A glance through my notebook after leaving the opening concert in the Clara Schumann 200th anniversary festival at St John’s Smith Square – which featured all of the composer’s published Lieder – reveals the repeated use of one word: “charming”. There is simply no getting away from the fact that even the most stony-hearted would find these songs difficult to resist. Who wouldn’t enjoy endlessly lyrical melodies supported by beautifully crafted accompaniments? Yet for all their sweet good nature, quiet tragedy is never far away, and a startling abruptness in some examples reveals a steely side to this maker of wistful dreams.

Sophie Karthäuser © Alvaro Yanez
Sophie Karthäuser
© Alvaro Yanez

Bringing all 29 songs to the stage were soprano Sophie Karthäuser, tenor Alessandro Fisher and pianist Eugene Asti, an accompanist pre-eminent in this field. Between them they conjured an evening of pure delight.

One often hears Clara Schumann’s songs compared unfavourably with those of Schubert, Brahms and her husband Robert, but that is to miss the point. They should be enjoyed for what they are, the product of an independent musical mind – a woman, let us remember, who was far more famous as a pianist and composer than her husband when they first married.

The evening opened with Clara’s settings of Friedrich Rückert’s love poetry, Asti beautifully handling the gentle rocking accompaniment of Liebst du um Schöheit (If you love for beauty), sung with great tenderness by Karthäuser. More lilting simplicity followed in Warum willst du andre fragen (Why enquire of others), in which tenor Fisher ardently entreated his love to believe his devotion.

Sechs Lieder Op.13 had Fisher mourning the loss of his love with sweet resignation in Heinrich Heine’s Ihr Bildnis (Her likeness), before Karthäuser gave us an example of Clara’s ability to chill the heart with Sie liebten sich beide (First love). That frisson was quickly dispelled with Karthäuser’s thrilling reading of the excitable Liebeszauber (Love’s magic) and the gentle lilting melody of Der Mond kommt still gegangen (The moon rises silently), wistfully sung by Fisher, who displayed an impressively rich lower register and sensitive phrasing in Ich hab’ in deinem Auge (I saw in your eyes).

Karthäuser showed a real feel for the shape of the graceful melody of Die stille Lotosblume (The silent lotus flower), another example of Clara’s ability to leave a song unresolved – a musical question mark left hanging in mid-air.

The first half closed with Sechs Lieder aus Jucunde Op.23, settings of Hermann Rollett’s highly perfumed and overwrought poetry. The ardent passion of Geheimes Flüstern (Secret whisperings) was beautifully handled by Karthäuser, with Asti illustrating just how symbiotic Clara’s accompaniments can be. The affecting little song Auf einem grünen Hügel (The green hill), again illustrated Clara’s ability to suddenly bring the curtain down – just as we were beginning to enjoying another enchanting melody.

Things took on a darker hue after the interval, with Fisher and Asti’s reading of Der Abendstern (The evening star) mysterious and hauntingly beautiful. Karthäuser emptied her voice of all colour in the broodingly dramatic tale of love and death which is Heine’s Volkslied (Folksong), while Fisher’s light and silvery tenor belied the grim tale that is Der Wanderer in der Sägemühle (The wayfarer in the sawmill). An irresistible rising scale in the accompaniment caught the imagination in Beim Abschied (On departing), its charming (yes, that word) melody beautifully delineated by Karthäuser.

This fine concert could have been enhanced immeasurably by some explanation for the audience, other than the necessarily brief programme notes. It seemed strange that the first in a series celebrating the bicentenary of a significant composer had no introduction from the platform or no short spoken biography putting Clara Schumann in her musical context. Yes, of course, her music can speak for itself, but I’m sure an audience’s appreciation would be even sharper if it knew more about why this talent has been so undeservedly neglected until now.