Role players: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, ‘Album für die Frau’

A great art song recital can be exactly that: top-notch performances of beautiful works. On this recording, we find Sampson in exquisite voice, Middleton’s playing as impeccable as ever, and the songs featured are a tribute to the duo’s ongoing flair for engaging, informative programming, live and on disc. However, this time round, the central idea is perhaps their most elegant and thought-provoking yet: moving, speculative, it will stay with you between listens and draw you back often.

‘Fraulieben und Leben’ or ‘Fraulieben und -leben’ (even the title provokes an issue or two!) is a widely loved and performed song cycle by Robert Schumann, based on a group of poems by Adalbert von Chamisso. Across eight songs, it charts a woman’s life – sung in her ‘voice’ – from the first awestruck encounter with her future husband to his death. (Robert omits a final, ninth poem in the original sequence which revisits the ‘Frau’ in old age.)

In ‘different times’, we accept, the woman’s subservience to the man was simply taken by many as read, the natural order of things. But the selectivity of Chamisso / Schumann make the sequence feel almost wilfully problematic to modern sensibilities. In brief, the eight songs cover: love at first sight; potential rejection; reciprocation; wedding 1 (getting the ring); wedding 2 (leaving previous life / friends for marriage); pregnancy; motherhood; widowhood.

In other words, the cycle only includes events in the woman’s experience that relate directly to the man. The most abrupt jolt, between songs 7 and 8, encourages us to think that the husband succumbs to an almost immediate, early death. The tragedy of the cycle seems, in hindsight, to foreshadow what actually befell Robert and Clara Schumann – but as we’ll see, one of this album’s achievements is to gently dismantle that idea for the fancy it is: after all, Robert was very much alive when he wrote the music, and he would almost certainly have seen the whole cycle – chap’s demise included – as a celebration of Clara’s devotion to him.

I’ve heard the cycle performed completely straight, sometimes with almost shocking intensity. It’s as if the way through it is to acknowledge at face value that these are authentically extreme moments in the woman’s life. I’ve also, somewhat unexpectedly, heard it performed by a man. Roderick Williams sang it (with Middleton) at one of Wigmore Hall’s remotely-staged concerts during the 2020 lockdown. (This idea in fact started life as a joint concert programme with Sampson, which would have enabled a more ‘two-way’ exploration of art song’s gender-swap potential. However, the performance as originally planned was scuppered by Covid.) Williams gave a warm, sensitive reading, as one would expect, but to hear him sing goodbye to his sisters before going on to give birth was also, inevitably, somewhat satirical – underlining that surely the last thing this cycle needs is ‘more bloke’. Given Chamisso’s presumption in adopting the female voice and Robert Schumann’s endorsement in setting it, should we really snatch the performance away from the woman as well?

For poet and composer, the cycle is surely about the man anyway, the woman’s words reflecting his glory – her repeated references to how he dazzles or blinds her; how he is a ‘noble star of splendour’. Even their new-born child is referred to as ‘your likeness’ and, in a moment I actually find a little chilling, Schumann has the phrase ‘dein Bildnis’ repeat in isolation at the end of the song, extra to the Chamisso, just to underline the point.

Those familiar with the cycle may also recall how Schumann takes the distinctive two-chord rising figure that opens the first song and repeats it in the closing moments of the last one. The transition into it is subtle and almost transformational – on your first encounter, you don’t hear it coming and yet it feels like the most natural thing in the world – but the message it sends is more than merely poignant. The voice is now silent and the woman’s existence has effectively ended with the man’s, her life fully contained in his.

Enter ‘Album für die Frau’. Carolyn Sampson has written a fascinating article about the disc herself for the Guardian, outlining how a woman of today might approach ‘Frauenliebe und Leben’ (please follow the link at the bottom of this post to read the full piece). There, she cites those repeating chords as an example of how musically sublime the cycle is, and how its beauty alone could probably explain its ongoing appeal.

Clara fulfilled the roles of wife and mother in which Robert had cast and romanticised her. But she enjoyed a stellar career as a concert pianist, as well as a composer in her own right, before, during and after Robert – making her a working mum and the key earner in the household. On the new CD, Sampson and Middleton ‘read between the lines’ of the cycle itself and draw on repertoire from both Schumanns to fill in the gaps and bring the Frau out of her husband’s shadow.

The disc is divided into ten sections: a prologue, eight ‘scenes’ (which follow the running order of ‘Frauenliebe und Leben’) and a postlude. Each scene starts with the relevant song from the cycle, then groups it with two or three pieces from elsewhere. This makes for an intriguing listener experience, especially if you have some familiarity with the cycle: you clearly remain in the same musical ‘universe’, but it is not as it was before. The original set of songs no longer has its stranglehold on the Frau’s imaginary existence, and new possibilities open up. That two-chord hook is no longer the first and last thing you hear, and its re-emergence is only the end of his story, not hers.

The duo maintain a proper narrative tension throughout the record over whether we should take it that the Frau ‘is’ Clara, or a fictional construct, or some representative entity somewhere between the two. For example, they fashion the Prologue from a solo piece by Robert, then a setting by Clara of a Rückert poem where the woman implores the man to love her for what she is rather than any transient attributes like youth or beauty. This, you could argue, is strongly suggestive of Clara’s pre-marriage solo career (with Robert’s work as part of her rep), and her wish that he embrace her artistry and talent. Elsewhere, however, there is a pleasing ambiguity between the wider application of the songs’ content and the specific settings of Robert and Clara themselves.

If Robert’s piano accompaniments – glorious as they are – sometimes feel like potential piano solos, Clara’s settings, which all appear in more or less the first half of the programme, seem to harness her own virtuosity to the tonally and rhythmically adventurous needs of the songs. Middleton is in his element here. ‘The Joy, the joy’ features waves of notes, runs and chords firing off each other, increasing and decreasing in density depending on how prominent the voice needs to be, reflecting the echo as the Frau hears her song resound in the valley. Meanwhile, the air currents and agile streams of ‘Love’s Magic’ emerge in continuous rapid triplets – here, expertly controlled – that also suggest the agitation and uncertainty accompanying new love.

Perhaps the most intriguing of all is ‘The Silent Lotus Flower’, the gentle vocal melody supported by one of the most subtly, oddly beautiful piano parts I’ve heard. Unhurried but propulsive, the accompanying chords bob along for two verses as the flower gradually moves beneath the moonlight. As a swan begins to serenade the flower, the chords break out into separate notes (without dropping pace) as the vocal melody expands above it. As the part never quite resolves, it is as if we are just passing through this scene ourselves. In just over two minutes, wholly within its allegory, it suggests blossoming in the presence of one’s lover, but seasoned with uncertainty, nerves, even fear of the unknown.  

Sampson audibly delights in the opportunity the concept offers to inhabit the character of the Frau. Her voice retains its brilliant clarity throughout, but runs through various shades in line with the narrative. Youthful, dancing tones describe the ‘distant and sublime’ lover in ‘He, the Most Wonderful of All’, and you would swear you could hear the coy smile at ‘Are my lips silent to your questions?’ in Robert’s ‘Why enquire of others?’ She lends the unashamedly erotic lyric of ‘On a Clear Morning’ a breathy excitement, buoyed up by the equally ‘agitated’ stop-start sweep of the piano part, demanding from Middleton a genuinely climactic, but still delicate, tour-de-force.

While the Frau probably does not age significantly over the course of the disc’s story, she matures, and Sampson conveys this gradual shift convincingly – a particular example would be ‘Sweet Friend, you look’ from the original cycle, where we hear a calmer, steadier reflectiveness. Perhaps most impressive of all is the performance of ‘Now you have caused me my First Pain’, the cycle’s death-song. In three verses, we hear sorrow, anger, despair, regret, numbness. Sampson’s rendition is fearless, focusing an intense explosion of breath around ‘You sleep…’ before restraint, like a coping mechanism, kicks in and the emotion drains away from her voice as she withdraws. It’s uncompromising stuff, and you find yourself grateful that the concept gives her more time to grieve.

For me, the album ‘clicks’ on multiple levels:

  • I was fascinated to learn (from the CD notes by Natasha Loges) that Clara cherry-picked and re-organised Robert’s pieces into more palatable combinations for her audiences, not only championing his material, but ensuring it received wider acclaim than it would have achieved without her input. Clara’s reassembly of her husband’s work anticipates Sampson and Middleton’s decision to do the same, finding a way to help a modern listener engage with the piece and overcome its barriers: a celebration of programming as a creative act.
  • They do not ‘cheat’. The disc is not ‘given over’ to Clara (though that would be an enticing listen in itself) – instead the reality of Robert’s more prolific output is preserved, and he dominates. The intrigue lies in where Clara’s seven contributions appear, and why.
  • Equally, the duo avoid the trap of spoofing or denigrating the original cycle, and there is no suggestion that it should be disregarded or ‘cancelled’. Instead, they demonstrate the value of nuanced interpretation; that we are sophisticated enough to understand ‘Frauenliebe und Leben’ as it was meant to be heard then, and as it can be heard now, all at the same time, and challenge its creators’ attitudes while still admiring their craft.

‘Album für die Frau’ feels like a proudly original, perfectly-realised record. It’s a fusion of music, knowledge, empathy and inspiration, all working in harmony to create a fully-rounded psychological portrait of a woman almost lost to the past.

Sampson’s voice and Middleton’s piano would keep you listening, of course. But the warmth, interplay and sheer emotional intelligence here will keep you thinking and feeling, too.

AA

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‘Album für die Frau’, along with Sampson & Middleton’s other recordings, is available from:

or

Read Carolyn Sampson’s article for the Guardian about the album here: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/apr/13/carolyn-sampson-joseph-middleton-clara-robert-schumann-frauenliebe-und-leben

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