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 BÃ´Å‚t 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 SchÃ¼tz 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 SchÃ¼tz, who is apparently an actor of some renownÂ 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 SchÃ¼tz’ vocals here are exaggerated when compared to earlier recordings of the Schumann songs. I have no idea, but if I am right we then Â 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 SchÃ¼tz’ 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.