Dichterliebe is a Lieder programme staple but performances of Schumann’s anti-song cycle, the Op. 39 Liederkreis, are much harder to come by. The latter work fascinates me more, with its themes, in the twelve Eichendorff poems carefully selected by Schumann, of broken, alienated subjects longing for that from which they are cut off, namely love, nature, and some guarantee of existential wellbeing. That no earthly realm can offer these things on equitable terms is shown through sting-in-the-tail images of hopeless wretches who yearn for lovers long dead, despondent brides crushed by patriarchal authority, and dumb white knights who get themselves ensnared. Woods and forests represent dark malevolent forces and must not be ventured into at all cost (though protagonists of course always do), while birds and the imagery of flying away symbolize transcendental release. There is the suggestion that this is eventually achieved, though the cycle’s ending is far from conclusive and can be read ironically. Much stranger than anything written for Dichterliebe, Schumann’s writing abounds in dysfunctional and deceptively functional elements, generating tension and unpredictability from non-normative harmonic structures and other structural features.

Christianne Stotijn © Stephan Vanfleteren
Christianne Stotijn
© Stephan Vanfleteren

A great performance of this work might go some way to explaining the cycle’s archaic, austere, inscrutable, illusory and distorting qualities; in a good performance these things may simply be laid bare. Julius Drake’s playing glossed over the individuality of the writing and even made it sound quotidian. Textural clarity was patchy and a number of Schumann’s more interesting harmonic structures were blurred by the pedalling, while the more pianistic writing was overplayed, and particularly in the aggressively struck semiquavers of the final song. The character of the F sharp major rapture at the end should be, like everything in these songs which carries the suggestion of all not being well, something a pianist supports the singer in preparing throughout the cycle. Christianne Stotijn was a strong storyteller who gave knowing emphasis to the nostalgia of the second ‘In der Fremde’ song and an evocative account of the Lorelei entanglement in ‘Waldesgespräch’. The ‘Krieg im tück’schen Frieden’ warning of ‘Zwielicht’ was nicely highlighted and the conclusion of ‘Auf einer Burg’ appropriately poignant. But while each of her songs had a focused emotional centre, there was little of the sharply inquiring approach this cycle requires to make an impact.

Britten’s canticle Abraham and Isaac sets that which cannot be represented next to something which can be represented all too plainly, and this effort was no different from many a performance of this curious piece for bringing off the former with more finesse than the latter. Christianne Stotijn was joined for this work by Mark Padmore, the other half of the evening’s vocal duo, and with their backs turned to the audience the two began the voice of God introduction with good blending, tonal purity and smoothness of line. The transition from God’s missive to the familiar test of faith tale was handled with flair, but shortly after this the singing came to be dominated by high melodrama, with Padmore’s overacting and thunderous delivery rendering proceedings more than a little absurd. Both singers showed obvious sincerity but this didn’t make it any less over the top. Julius Drake’s expansive piano playing was more eloquent.

Janáček’s wonderful song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared was not only an inspired way to round off the programme but also the item which featured the evening’s finest performances. The story of the protagonist who ‘disappears’, drawn by the love of a gypsy girl whose mystique is heightened by three off-stage voices, is closer to a chamber opera than a song cycle and here the barest bones of a semi-staging amounted to a shawl for Stotijn and some vocal delivery from the floor. That the drama remained mostly confined to the singing was in no way disappointing: Mark Padmore gave us, with unflagging intensity, an onslaught of emotional states pitched between plaintiveness and anguish, and heavy on psychological substance. Ragged tone set in a little while before the tortuous tessitura of the climactic final number, but Padmore launched himself at the two top Cs which conclude the cycle and somehow managed still to go out blazing in spite of strained vocal production.

Christianne Stotijn was quite beguiling in her short appearance around halfway through, with the recessed quality to her head voice and noticeable register breaks which had been widespread in the Schumann much reduced. The three off-stage ladies – Claudia Goebl, Dorottya Láng and Katrin Auzinger – produced a pleasant ensemble sound at an appropriate dynamic. Julius Drake may have responded rather safely to Liederkreis, but here really got stuck in with the orchestral demands of the writing. In quieter, impressionistic moments his playing offered Ravelian colourings and bell-like clarity, while in the more dramatic sections of the cycle, pacing, build-up and ultimate devastation were accomplished with admirable balance between head and heart.