Imogen Cooper, in recent concerts at the Wigmore Hall in London, proved once more her innate sensibility and musicianship. She displayed a natural affinity for the Romantic and individual sound-world of Robert Schumann (see reviews on Seen & Heard), and this impression is more than confirmed by her playing in the present issue.
Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper have made several outstanding lieder recordings for Philips. Here's another: songs of Robert and Clara Schumann. There's no disputing the excellence of this partnership in the art of German lied, obvious in the main offering here: Robert's Op. 35 Kerner Lieder, a dozen songs that portray the misery of a young man whose beloved becomes a nun. As the second song puts it, "Farewell, love and joy". That song is sung in caressing tones by Holzmair, who employs a ravishing half-voice to depict the young lady. He expertly colors his voice with a regretful tinge of bitterness in "Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes" and then lightens it for the last stanza while retaining that sense of deep sadness. He and Cooper also excel in building the entire set as a single span of loneliness leading to anguished resignation. Thomas Hampson, in a 1990 Teldec release, achieves a similar effect with generally more expansive tempos and the inherent advantage conferred by a deeper baritone than Holzmair's brighter instrument. But while both serve the music well, for me the more fluid pacing and varied vocal colors tip the scales to Holzmair.
The division of the rest of the disc between the Schumanns (10 for him, seven for her) is justified by the composition of these songs during Robert's intense courtship and marriage to Clara, during which time he became a prolific composer of lied and encouraged her to write songs as well. Clara's contributions here are routine Romantic lied, their generic quality easily excused by her inexperience with the form. I hope the PC craze doesn't exaggerate her modest compositional talents beyond what her works can bear. The most interesting aspects of Clara's songs usually are the piano parts, although in songs such as "Sie Liebten sich Beide" Holzmair seizes the opportunity to display his ravishing diminuendos, which Clara has peppered throughout. Most of Robert's songs are drawn from his Op. 25 set, including the popular first one, "Widmung", and the pair of Venetian Songs Op. 25 Nos. 17 and 18. These also are part of Bryn Terfel's Schumann program on DG where his outsized personality makes them come alive with star vibrancy. But Holzmair's more straightforward singing is effective, and lest you think he's too withdrawn (the program wallows in the despairing misery the German Romantics seem to have preferred), he does some terrific tipsy singing in the Op. 25 Nos. 5 and 6 pair of Robert's Goethe drinking songs.
Cooper is no mere accompanist here; she's a full partner. Her incisive, idiomatic pianism is essential to the success of this recital, her postludes telling--listen to how her playing of the extended postlude to "Stille Tränen" from the Kerner set sums up the entire song, almost making the words unnecessary. Voice and piano are faithfully captured and balances are good, but occasionally Holzmair's bright timbre defeats the microphone placement and blasting ensues.
Dan Davis, ClassicsToday.com