A whole evening devoted to one composer, Robert Schumann, and a single year: 1840. Tonight’s programme could not have been more appealing had it tried. Delivering it were Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber, both well known to the Lied Series at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid.

Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher © Alexander Baste/ Sony BMG
Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher
© Alexander Baste/ Sony BMG

So what happened in that exceptional year, where Schumann penned so many lieder from some of the most iconic poets of his time? Astonishingly, his Dichterliebe, Liederkreis Op.24 and Frauenlieben und leben cycles were all written in this “Liederjahr”, along many other miraculous songs. His long-awaited wedding with Clara Wieck is usually referred to as the source of this blossoming. They married a day before she turned 21. Years earlier, he wrote to her: “I often think of you, not like a brother thinks of his sister, or as friend of a friend, but rather as a pilgrim thinks of the picture above the distant altar.” After years of bitter battles, lawyers’ mediation included, with her adamant father, marrying Clara could only have come as the fulfilling of a life’s dream. While their wedding would have certainly played a part in triggering his musical inspiration, the fact remains that many of those songs were composed before their nuptials in September of 1940. Really, his Lieder from that year represented a bigger realisation – that of a composer who finds his voice through setting to music the poetry of others; poems that echo his own inner life. In so doing, Schumann expresses who he is, to his bride and ultimately to the world. In addition, and much more mundanely, it so happened that these songs were better received that much of his piano and other instrumental music. The retribution he received allowed him to grant increased financial stability at home and to challenge his father-in-law’s concerns about his ability to provide for his adored daughter.

The recital began with a selection of seven of the twenty-six songs that form Myrthen, Op.25. Gerhaher and Huber chose number two, “Freisinn” (“Free spirit”), to break the silence, followed by “Talismane”, the eighth song of the cycle, and, just like the previous one, set to a poem of Goethe. It was, however, the third of their selection (the fifteenth of the cycle), “Aus den hebräischen Gesängen” (“From Hebrew Melodies”), that really saw Gerhaher and Huber take off for the entire evening, the piano introduction leaving no doubt about the excellence of the pianist on stage. Gerhaher’s elegance when singing (reciting) in the second of the “Zwei Venetianische Lieder” (“Two Venetian Songs”), so different from that of Mendelssohn’s take on the same poem, was also there to stay. How fortunate it is that Gerhaher and Huber’s paths crossed many years ago when they were still students in Munich. This happy occurrence has led to endless concerts and recordings that invite reflection about the role Lieder play in the history of music, in the history of emotions.

With the overtones of the last notes of “Zum Schluss” (”In Conclusion”) still filling the room, and possibly many of the audience’s souls, Huber played the first F sharp minor arpeggio of “In der Fremde” (“In a foreign land”), which opens Liederkreis, Op.39. It includes some of the most superb music ever written. According to Schumann himself, “it must be my most romantic and it contains much of you”. No marks for guessing who that “you” is referring to. The entire cycle was poured out with what can only be described as an overwhelming pallet of nuances, from the melancholy of the opening song to the dramatic approach to the miniature tragic fable that is “Waldesgespräch” (“A forest dialogue”) or the stillness of “Mondnacht” (“Moonlit night”). There was also the rhythmically disconcerting “Intermezzo”, performed with the distinction of two individuals who breathe as if they were one, or the threatening quietness of “Zwielicht” (“Twilight”). Its last sentence, “Hüte dich, sei wach und munter!” (“Be wary, watchful, on your guard!”) sends chills down the spine. “I have revelled in these poems,” Schumann about this Eichendorff cycle. He most certainly did.

“Die Löwenbraut” (“The lion’s bride”) opened the second half of the concert and provided some contrast through its narrative as opposed to poetic nature. Possibly because it came after getting used to the lyrical pace, it did not reach the heights of the rest of the concert, a flawless performance dwarfed by the sheer perfection of the rest of the programme. There was still another cycle to come, however. The Zwölf Gedichte is another glorious cycle, and an irresistible journey that Gerhaher and Huber invited us to join them on, wandering their way to another dimension. The last songs, and in particular “Wer machte dich so krank?” (“Who made you so ill?”) and “Alte Laute” (“Sounds from the past”) left the audience speechless, unable to applaud in what possibly was a shared instant of human awakening.