The Year of Song
The Aldeburgh Connection
At Walter Hall in Toronto on Sunday
The Aldeburgh Connection brought its faithful audience another singularly beguiling afternoon of song on Sunday afternoon at Walter Hall. Artistic directors and pianists Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata read salient bits from the letters of Robert Schumann and, with two principal singers, cherry-picked their way through the unstemmable flood of 128 songs that flowed from Schumann’s pen in the heady months leading to his 1840 marriage to the brilliant young pianist Clara Wieck.
In the years previous, Schumann had been occupied almost exclusively with music for the piano – much of it inspired by the skills and talents of the then teenaged Clara – and had shown no interest in composing songs. But suddenly, when the implacable opposition of her father to their ever marrying (Schumann was 10 years older than Wieck) was overruled by the courts, Schumann’s need to express his feelings for his beloved led him to seek them reflected in poetry, and then to clothe the precious verses in music of his own devising.
Obsessive as he was, once he began, he could not stop, and in that single year he laid down the lavish array of songs – in garlands and cycles and smaller groupings – that established him as the pre-eminent master of the genre between Schubert and Brahms. Obviously, all 128 songs could not be contained in Sunday’s program, despite the near-miraculous brevity of some of them. But the approximately one-fifth on offer Sunday represented handsomely the whole extraordinary achievement. And the two featured singers were well-chosen advocates for it.
Erin Wall has a lovely clear soprano, at its finest in the linear legatos so enhancing to Schumann’s distinctive melodies. The voice is less adaptable to his more dramatic manifestations and to his occasional use of ornament. Thus, the crucial turns in Waldesgespraech and Helft mir, ihr Schwestern were unarticulated. The dire drama of Waldesgespraech was also uneasily managed. By contrast, the far more difficult rapt hush of Mondnacht was magically sustained, as was the floating languor of Die Lotosblume. Probably Wall’s finest moment of the afternoon, though, came in Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend, in which you could feel she really was longing for the forest, ending her effusion with a lovely high pianissimo.
Seconded by the softly assisting young tenor Patrick Jang, she was also impressive in the two duets from Opus 34, in particular the bubbling first one, a setting of verse by Robbie Burns, which also inspired the best of Stephen Ralls’s many beautifully gauged accompaniments. The other principal singer, Phillip Addis, was for me something of a discovery: a fine baritone, not quite finished in every respect but memorable for the variety and genuineness of its eloquence: the real lieder-singer’s gift for conveying the specific essence of a song, distinct from each other song in his repertoire. From the enthralled simplicity of Du bist wie eine Blume to the martial swing of Die beiden Grenadiere, from the ardent confession of Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ to the grave, portentous tragedy of that supremely exacting peroration Stille Traenen, you could feel Addis touching and conveying the essences of verse and music. He did not altogether manage Stille
Traenen vocally, but there was no doubt he understood it and helped us understand it.
There is a big gift here for the many worlds of lieder, and thanks are due once again to Ralls and Ubukata and the Aldeburgh Connection for bringing it to public attention.