Singing Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) in the gracious Lukaskirche at the Lucerne Festival, the Austrian baritone Rafael Fingerlos was accompanied by the pianist Sascha El Mouissi. The programme also included other Heine poems, read intermittently by the distinguished soprano and music educator Edith Mathis. 

Sascha El Mouissi and Rafael Fingerlos © Lucerne Festival | Peter Fischli
Sascha El Mouissi and Rafael Fingerlos
© Lucerne Festival | Peter Fischli

The poems in Heinrich Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo have been cited as rife with “almost hyper-sensitive poetical affections”, although the delicate language of flowers, fantasy and dreams was very much de rigueur when the poems were published in 1823. With some frequency, Robert Schumann adapted the poems’ words to his need for the songs, choosing to repeat – or slightly reword – certain lines to achieve a desired cadence. Notably, the stanzas teem with references to the most virginal of natural settings, the precarious position of the man in love and the loss of the counterpart’s affections that rightly unravel him.  

To the modern ear, many of Heine’s lyrics sound saccharine enough to make them ripe for a text on a standard greeting card. But if one allows, they also drive up the ante on remembrance of times past, lost loves and misguided behaviour, undoubtedly viable fodder for any age. And Schumann’s compositional craft presents facets of the human condition that make Dichterliebe among the most poignant song cycles of the Romantic vocal repertoire. 

Highlights in the ca. 90-minute programme in Lucerne deserve particular mention. In “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh” (When I look into your eyes), the lover sings, “When I kiss your mouth I am whole, when I recline on your breast, I am filled with heavenly joy, and when you say, ‘I love you’, I weep bitterly!” Fingerlos came down solidly and at powerful volume on the mention of his good health, but brought his voice back on the “I love you”  to a whisper sweet enough to entice even the most hard-hearted listener. Wherever the singer was in the subject range, from the lover’s observation of banal daily habits to a language with erotic overtones, his treatment of the lyrics was consistently sovereign. His variations in timbre and colour conjured up a man softened by a “sprig of cypress” in “Allnächtlich im Traume”, for example, or one trying to stand tall and defend himself against the “snake that eats away at your (his lover’s) heart” in “Ich grolle nicht” (I do not chide you). 

By the same token, Sascha El Mouissi’s piano compellingly underscored the emotive rollercoaster of the songs. Possibly unconsciously, the pianist often silently mouthed the words that Fingerlos was singing, and their rapport showed itself to be affable and considerate. The piano accompaniment was supportive, but never intrusive. In short, here was a highly commendable musical partnership.

Finally, Heine’s poetry as an art in its own right was underscored with élan by the distinguished soprano and music educator, Edith Mathis, who, incidentally, was born in Lucerne. The choice of supplementary poems she read was in keeping with the drama of Romanticism, but her spoken language gave us even more: the beauty of perfect enunciation and pacing, a welcome lesson for singers and laypeople alike. What’s more, the degree of humour that marked some of her poem choices was refreshing. The acoustics in the Lukaskirche were ideal for a fine vocal concert and poetry reading, and a little giggle in church never hurt anyone either.