Friday, March 12, 2010


I have been completely addicted in the past few days to Reinbert de Leeuw's piercingly beautiful Im wunderschonen Monat Mai, a re-imagining of Schumann and Schubert lieder. The 2007 album, performed by the Schoenberg Ensemble and actress Barbara Sukowa, draws on and conflates songs from Dichterliebe, Winterreise, and Schwanengesang along with a few miscellaneous works. Leeuw elegantly crafts each song for small orchestra and Sukowa, who sings, speaks, and screeches her way through key sections of various texts.

On a first listening to the title track, I was not particularly impressed. There's something slightly cheesy about Leeuw's version of Im wunderschonen Monat Mai (the first song from Dichterliebe), which opens with quasi-atonal piano arpeggios before launching into the famous, rippling Schumann chords filled out with strings, followed by Sukowa's whispers of the text. But the emotional depth of Leeuw's settings only strengthens through the rest of the album, and the cheesiness dissolves in the gorgeous Gute Nacht. Sukowa's child-like, almost inappropriate innocence and Leeuw's Klangfarbenmeldodie orchestration (the stately strings and mellifluous winds echo Webern's orchestration of Bach's Ricercar from The Musical Offering) create a compelling, atmospheric evocation of the opening lied of Winterreise.

By the time I arrived at Gretchen am Spinnrad, the first song not associated with a cycle (although Schubert's Schwanengesang is technically a set of songs, compiled by his publishers), I was hooked. Leeuw infuses the song with an visceral, sexual energy, drawing out the eroticism inherent in the text but somewhat suppressed by Schubert's framing arpeggios. He explodes this frame, allowing Gretchen to embrace her animalistic passion, growling repeatedly "An seinen Kussen!" It reminds us that Goethe's Gretchen was not simply an ewig Weibliche, but also a young, sensual woman.

Ich grolle nicht, one of my favorite parts of Dichterliebe, has the nasal, echt Berliner fury of a Brecht/Weill cabaret song. The frustration of the narrator's unrequited love is brought to the fore, as Sukowa snarls "I bear no grudge, even when my heart is breaking." Mostly spoken, Leeuw's Ich hab in Traum geweinet (the emotional center of Dichterliebe) rests on a soft haze of strings. A bizarre little Webernian outtro transitions into Der Erlkonig, fantastically virtuosic, imbued with a dramatic heft from Leeuw's economic but heavy orchestration. Sukowa embodies each of the three characters, eerily imitating the sickly child, the authoritative father, and the creepy Erlking. Her whisper of "In seinem Armen, das Kind" omits out the final words "war tot." Leeuw ends with a quick pluck of the harp, and the transition to the lugubrious Der Doppelganger leaves the listener with the realization of the child's death.

Despite haunting instrumental solos in Der Leiermann (the clarinet is wonderfully prominent throughout the cycle, evoking the idyll of late Brahms), it is one of the only songs which falls flat. You really can't do anything with this most depressing of texts, the final song of Winterreise, that Schubert hasn't already; it requires the intimacy of only piano and voice. The biggest (pleasant) surprise in the work is Ein Jungling liebt ein Madchen, with its punchy Stravinskian rhythms and Sukowa's bizarre sing-song, both unexpected in a Schumann setting.

And a few songs later, we arrive at the end, naturally with Die alten bösen Lieder, the ultimate hyper-Romantic expression of bitterness, loneliness, and longing. Sukowa shouts much of the text, as instrumental lines entwine around her. In an achingly gorgeous, full-toned voice, she sings the final couplet: "Ich senkt auch meine Liebe/Und meinen Schmerz hinein." And we are left with the best music Schumann has ever written, the piano postlude of Dichterliebe, orchestrated with lush strings and piano. This is reverie in its purest form.

All of the songs feature rapt performances by the Schoenberg Ensemble. It is remarkable how well Leeuw gets to the essence of each lied, and it was a delight to wonder how he would create a sound-world for all of the ends of the emotional spectrum. This is what neo-Romanticism should be: directly evoking the Romanticism of the 19th-century, in a purer form than Danielpour, Whitacre, Tan Dun, Corigliano (I actually like Corigliano, so I'll give him a break), and company attempt to re-create in their overladen orchestral music. Not that I'm saying new music has to work with older materials, or that neo-Romanticism has to directly reference alte-Romanticism. But by getting to the essence of Romanticism and updating it to a new century, Leeuw achieves a greater sense of the 19th-century dialectics and artistry of Romantism than most of the neo-Romantics, except for John Adams (if you include him in that camp). I cannot recommend this album more strongly; even if you don't like Leeuw's re-imaginings, they are more thought-provoking than any music I've heard lately.

Here's a live performance of the middle section of the work:

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