CD Reviews

Sunday 13th November

November 13, 2011

Well what the blinking’ flip am I meant to make of this?! Sorry, let me explain. A little while back three new discs from the Polish label Bôłt arrived here, the first in a series named Populista. Of these three, I have picked out the first to listen to today. It is a recording of the sixteen songs that make up Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle, performed by a vocalist named Bernhard Schütz and Reinhold fried, the improviser and leader of the Zeitkratzer group playing piano. Now, though i do have a couple of vinyl album soy Schumann’s music I haven’t heard any of his song work before, as I generally tend to avoid classical music with vocals. So I don’t know how these pieces should actually sound. I also don’t like Schumann all that much, from the small amount of his work I have heard- all a bit cloyingly melodic and romantic for me really, but without the sharpness and intensity of a composer like Beethoven. So, here we have modern recordings of schumann works I haven’t heard and have avoided because I doubt I would like them much. This isn’t an easy listen then.

What we hear then, to my cards at least, is a somewhat theatrical set of half spoken, half sung songs that sound occasionally angry and bitter (vocals are sometimes shouted, often aggressively voiced) in a language I don’t understand, to a piano accompaniment that reminds me, I am afraid to say, of my old primary school head teacher, who would play boldly and firmly alongside our morning assembly hymn shrieking. I am all for pushing my own boundaries, and forcing myself to listen to things I don’t like every now and again so as to keep my tastes from stagnating, but I am at a complete loss as to how to write about this music. Have I really spent so long writing about abstract, tuneless, wordless music that I just don’t know how to react to something like this now?

A bit of research explains that for Dichterliebe, Schumann, one of German Romanticism’s leading figures, chose to set the poetry of Heinrich Heine to music. This is significant because Heine was a very vocal critic of romanticism and Schumann, and the pieces used for the songs held a not-very-hidden element of biting satire aimed at romanticism. It has never been clear as to why Schumann chose to use these particular poems, or if he used them himself in a sarcastic manner so as to return fire at Heine. In this new version of the songs, the vocalist Schütz, who is apparently an actor of some renown in Germany doe seem to spit out the words with some venom. I wonder then if the new take on the work tries to amplify the satirical side, and maybe the cutting edge to Schütz’ vocals here are exaggerated when compared to earlier recordings of the Schumann songs. I have no idea, but if I am right we then  must be left to wonder if any sarcasm found in the vocals should be heard as taking sides with the poet or the composer.

OK, I must be honest, I found this really hard to listen to more than a couple of times and really didn’t enjoy it very much. It reminded me of early comedic takes on music hall, with a singer leaning on the end of a piano and singing/speaking along with the pianist. Its a million miles away from Zeitkratzer, and anything else I have heard on this label, and a billion miles away from anything I usually listen to. So really I shouldn’t be trying to write about it, but sometimes it makes sense to air my own failings, point out my own gaps in musical knowledge so as to explain why I don’t connect with something. I am not sure that I can technically fault anything here. The piano playing seems to be as good as it can be, I just don’t like what is being played- overly simplistic pretty tunes with little subtlety to the compositions, and the vocals have plenty of body and character to them. I almost felt I could picture Schütz’ face as I listened, even though I haven’t a clue what he looks like. Yet I just don’t enjoy this kind of thing. It isn’t what I listen to simply because I take so little from it. The area of music just seems so obvious and lacking in anything subtle for me. Perhaps if I could understand German I could take a little more from this CD, but somehow I doubt it. There are two more discs in the Populista series here and oddly enough I look forward to hearing them, and sharing my thoughts. I would love to know from others as to what I am missing here though.

Comment (1)

  • Wombatz

    November 13, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    I find this take hard to understand myself. I think the piano is far from “as good as it can be”, though … the vocals I get, while I have no desire for extra histrionics in a music that is already emotionally overt, and I wouldn’t have needed Schumann in a Brecht tradition (it would have been much more interesting to have him sung unprofessionally, with that special magic a house concert can have), I at least feel the actor has a masterplan; but the piano to my ears is just damn incompetent ugly. In fact it made me think of the schoolteacher’s daughter in Thomas Bernhard’s Untergeher who could kill a Steinway just by her touch … So no, can’t tell you what you’re missing.

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