Polished recital of Lieder by Clara Schumann and Brahms, and Robert’s Scenes of Childhood

Göknil Meryem Biner (soprano) and Tom McGrath (piano)

Robert Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op 15
Brahms: Ständchen, Wie Melodien; Meine Liebe ist grün
Clara Schumann: Am Strande; Sie liebten sich beide; Liebst du um Schönheit; Er ist gekommen; Ich stand in dunklen Träumen; Lorelei

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 11 July, 12:15 pm

I didn’t hear the recital in March 2017 by this couple from Dunedin, though my colleague Rosemary Collier reviewed it. It seems many years since I have heard them. They form an attractive duet and the music they choose is the kind that is not much performed these days: the song recital is a bit out of fashion and there is a deep-seated belief among the classical music impresarios: that classical song recitals don’t sell (and nor do piano recitals, though that myth seems to be evaporating).

McGrath was born in Wellington, studied music at Canterbury University and at the Richard-Strauss-Konservatorium in Munich; he teaches in the Otago University Music Department. Biner was born in Munich, Turkish descent, and also studied at the Munich conservatorium.

This song recital attracted a good audience, by St Andrew’s lunchtime standards.

It began with Robert Schumann’s piano pieces, Kinderszenen (Scenes of childhood). Contrary to the impressions of some, they are not all pieces easily played by children (though some are, like ‘Träumerei’), though they can be expected to sound interesting to children (as well as adults, of course). McGrath’s playing was full of fun (‘Hasche-Mann’), colour and warmth (‘Glückes genug’), though one has heard performances in which the different moods and scenes are created with greater individuality. But as a unregenerate Schumann devotee, there was nothing I didn’t enjoy.

The notes in the programme described the relationship between the Schumanns and their protégé, Johannes Brahms, 23 years younger than Robert, 14 years younger than Clara. Both had a profound influence on the young Brahms’s development. So Biner chose three of Brahms’s songs: first the familiar Ständchen (Serenade) which took her voice quite high with an almost shimmering effect. And Wie Melodien zieht es mir and Meine Liebe ist grün; songs not so familiar depend on the performer’s commitment and ability to carry the listener away, and the combination of the expressive voice and the imaginative piano that Brahms always brings to his songs invested them with warmth and pleasure.

So no great aural readjustment was needed to enjoy the rest of the recital, devoted to the neglected songs of Clara Schumann (though one doesn’t need to dig very deep into the resources of the Internet to find that there are reputable recordings of them). First of all, I expected to hear interesting piano parts and my hopes were met; she was one of the finest pianists of the 19th century after all, and McGrath handled her sophisticated piano writing comfortably. It is interesting to note that, in contrast with Brahms’s songs – there are large numbers to folk poetry and poems by secondary poets – Clara, like Robert, chose poems by well-known poets. The first a German translation of Burns’s On the Shore, to a setting that captured the turbulent high seas, where the piano indeed almost made the chief contribution. No hint of Scotland; it was in a purely German Lieder idiom, and as imaginative a setting as many of the less known of Brahms.

She sang settings of three poems from Heine’s early collection Die Heimkehr. The first Sie liebten sich beide (They loved one another), the music expressing easily the painfully hesitant lines; and Ich stand in dunklen Träumen, the music avoiding excessive grief, though the words certainly invite it. And they ended with Clara’s setting of about the most popular poem in the German language – the famous  Lorelei – Ich Weiss nicht was sol les bedeuten.

It’s not easy to get the indelible music for Lorelei by Friedrich Silcher out of one’s head of course, but Clara’s setting is very evocative; it creates an unease, and employs throbbing  bass notes in the piano, a little reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig. The three Heine poems invited over-ripe expressions of grief but her settings went just far enough without exceeding the degree of restraint that is essential to good art.

The other two poems were by the hugely prolific poet, Friedrich Rückert: Liebst du um Schönheit and Er ist gekommen. The first struck me as an interesting and wise poem and the music captured its sane, comforting feeling. The second touched me with its flowing melody and the idiomatic, fluent piano accompaniment. Musical settings of Rückert poems are only exceeded by those of Goethe and Heine: Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder are among the most famous; there’s also his five Rückertlieder, but you will find dozens of his poems set by Schubert, Schumann and many others.

Perhaps I go on a bit about musical settings of German poets; it’s because of the very rich yet unpretentious treasury of German lyrical verse that attracted most of the great composers in the 19th century; a phenomenon that has no parallel in The English-speaking world where poetry that inspires musical setting is not nearly as plentiful, and where comparable composers simply did not exist.

Apart from the pleasure of hearing these two polished artists performing together in such a comfortable musical relationship, it offered a taste of the huge quantity of German Lieder that remains, for many otherwise well-informed music lovers, rather unknown.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *