St Andrew’s Lunchtime concerts
Maaike Beekman-Christie (mezzo soprano) with Rachel Thomson (piano) and Chris van der Zee (viola)
Brahms: Two songs for mezzo, viola and piano:Op 91: Gestillte Sehnsucht and Die Ihr schwebet or Geistliches Wiegenlied
Schumann: Frauen-liebe und -leben (the first six songs)
Wolf: three Mignon songs (not performed)
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Wednesday 16 August, 12:15 pm
I wondered whether it was quite appropriate to review this recital, because, before she began, mezzo Maaike Christie-Beekman had explained that a voice problem might not allow her to get very far through the published programme.
I think her tactics were sensible when she began with the two Brahms songs, rather than with Schumann’s eight-song cycle which she then approached. And she abandoned Wolf’s Mignon songs (from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister) altogether.
Brahms Zwei Gesänge, Opus 91
Here were two of Brahms most beautiful and spiritual (allowing that he was an agnostic) songs, which were composed with an obbligato viola part. The opening of the first song which might be translated ‘suppressed’ or ‘stilled longing’, began with the rather singular sound of viola and piano – the particularly gorgeous tone of Chris van der Zee’s instrument, and Rachel Thomson’s more familiar, insightful piano – that captured the somewhat sombre tone of the song in a very arresting way. Whether it was her being careful with her voice or her sensitive response to the nature of the poems and their settings, I don’t know.
The poems had quite different origins. ‘Gestillte Sehnsucht’ by Rückert who, for the musical, is best known for Mahler’s settings of a small group of poems; while ‘Geistliches Wiegenlied’ (its first line, ‘Die ihr schwebet’), was a paraphrase by Emanuel von Geibel of a poem by famous 16-17th century Spanish playwright and poet Lope de Vega (a contemporary of Shakespeare). Geibel was a lesser poet of the Romantic period, a bit younger than Heine and Möricke. That poem was later set by Hugo Wolf, in his Spanisches Liederbuch.
Brahms set them with viola obbligato for his violinist friend Joachim, who was particularly fond of the viola, to mark the birth of Joachim and his wife’s first child. I found a different slant to the story about the pair of songs in programme notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic (on the Internet of course):
In 1863 violinist Joseph Joachim married the distinguished mezzo-soprano Amalie Schneeweiss. Both were important musical partners for Brahms, as well as close personal friends. They later had a son, named Johannes in honor of Brahms. The composer wrote an enchanted cradle song (“Geistliches Wiegenlied,” Sacred Lullaby) for his namesake, which Amalie could sing with Joseph playing the viola, Brahms’ favorite string instrument.
But the marriage became troubled by Joachim’s paranoid delusions about an affair he imagined Amalie had with Fritz August Simrock, Brahms’ publisher. Hoping to bring them together, Brahms reworked the lullaby and wrote a new song, “Gestillte Sehnsucht” (Stilled Longing). Blissfully domestic as the song was, it failed to repair the rift, and when Brahms testified on Amalie’s side in the subsequent divorce proceedings brought by Joseph, the violinist extended the broken relationship to include Brahms as well.
The second song began in a similar vein, reaching somewhat higher, it seemed, and here and there with a little more intensity. I think Brahms songs (all songs really) bloom with singing that pays more attention to simple modesty and unpretentiousness, and where the singer succeeds in telling the listener that (s)he finds sheer delight in their performance. That rather rare quality probably explains why I tend not to feel the sort of affection and delight in Brahms that I do in Schubert and Schumann. These quite overturned that feeling.
Frauenliebe und -leben
Then the Schumann cycle: among my dozen desert island discs. I was enraptured by them very early – say my late teens, as a result of one of the rather few rich and happy experiences at secondary school. Both my German masters for the compressed courses in the sixth and upper sixth forms loved music and used songs to embed the sounds of the language in our heads. Though I didn’t hear these particular songs at college the passion I’d developed for both German Romantic poetry and Lieder, led to a lot of eager exploration in my university years, where I continued with German (though without a lecturer with much interest in music). So I encountered poems by all the main poets, including Rückert and Chamisso (the poet of the Schumann cycle), and of course, Goethe and Schiller, Hölderlin, Tieck and Novalis, Uhland, Eichendorf, Müller (of Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise), the two who collected the folk song collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Arnim and Brentano), Möricke, Heine, and Geibel (of the second Brahms song).
I remember it struck me then that Germany had far more poets of the Romantic era that one knew about, than Britain, though I surmised there might be some difference in intellectual and literary quality at the less remarkable end of the German school.
Here endeth lesson in German Romantic poetry.
Schumann’s cycle has been subject to strange, perverse comments (hardly to be called ‘criticism’): a male purporting to write from the female perspective has to be either dishonest or sentimental since the feminine psyche hardly warrants serious study, or something of that kind… Such can be the charges against both poet and composer. In other words, only a female can hope to have the slightest understanding of the emotions depicted in poems about a woman’s life and love. I’ve always considered that nonsense; though I confess I’d have trouble hearing a male sing them (there are some or record).
So of the eight songs in the cycle, Maaike Christie-Beekman managed six. ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ quickly had me feeling quite weepy: the combination of the sentiments in the song and sudden impact of hearing the hushed sincerity that this gifted singer brought to it, and to the later ones. The sort of emotion that Janet Baker creates, not over-precisely articulated, merely expressing with genuine sensitivity and emotion what the words are saying.
‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ more open and confident, even ardent, and again the fact that she was guarding her voice enhanced the otherness of the song. A jumpy, hesitant feeling came with ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen’: her disbelief that he can really love her so!
And then the one that took root first for me, and probably others: ‘Du Ring am meinem Finger’ where she’s married, and there’s a trace of disbelief amid her ecstasy and wonderment. And all these emotions seemed so genuinely present in her voice.
‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ describes the preparations for the wedding, excitement, trepidation, over rolling piano chards. And as with so many Schumann songs there’s an enchanting postlude, a sort of commentary by the piano on what the singer is really trying to say!
‘Süsser Freund’, with its confusion between her beloved’s face and that of a hoped-for baby; the sort of song that would probably have seemed quite beyond the pale in 19th century Britain!.
And there she stopped, clearly aware of the greater demands of intensity demanded from the next two songs, particularly ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust’, describing the ecstasy at her first baby, and the heart-wrenching last song describing her grief at her husband’s death. There’s much in the last three poems, at least, that probably struck stiff-upper lip English readers and critics as excessively mawkish and sentimental. I simply think they’re moving and beautiful poems and their settings incomparable.
Perhaps it was as well to go out on a happier note. Even abbreviated, it was a wonderful little recital, and I long for the whole thing from Christie-Beekman. And the Wolf and lots more….