Spanning 10 hours, this 11-volume compendium of Schumann’s ‘complete’ songs by Christian Gerhaher marks the first survey committed to disc by the same singer (Hyperion’s Graham Johnson-curated intégrale dispersed among several voices). While much of the material was newly recorded between 2017 and 2020, some pieces date back as far as 2004 and 2007 although all share a comparably well-framed balance between voice and piano. 

Christian Herhaher

Gerhaher’s first encounter with Schumann’s songs prompted him to abandon his university studies in philosophy and entice former schoolmate Gerold Huber to join him in forming what has since been hailed as “the greatest partnership in singing”.

Gerhaher’s claim to sole authorship (albeit shared with Huber) rather overstates the matter, Sibylla Rubens sharing vocal duties on the Op. 64 Romanzen und Balladen and Rückert’s Liebesfrühling, Camilla Tilling in Myrthen, Julia Kleiter on Frauenliebe und -leben, and several others variously corralled in for the rarely recorded duets and trios. The supporting voices add welcome vocal contrast and emotional nuance, which is not to detract from Gerhaher’s considerable achievement here. ‘Complete’ is also something of a misnomer. Absent are the juvenilia composed before 1840, some of the early songs lacking what Gerhaher describes in his erudite booklet note as the “conceptually groundbreaking” sophistication of later efforts, and some choral works that resisted easy reduction for small forces.

Organised according to an “artistically interpretative approach” rather than chronologically, some may find the mix-and-match patchwork gets in the way of appreciating Schumann’s development as a songwriter. Others will find felicities in the intricacies of individual songs and occasionally unexpected pairings that distinguish this very personal journey. Two exemplars of such serve as suitable illustrations: Resignation, the first of the Op. 83 Drei Gesänge, a becoming retreat into eventual silence; the ardent and epic Op. 35 Kerner Lieder sitting alongside the curious collage of the Op. 127 Lieder und Gesänge und ein Gedanke.

Gerhaher’s affinity with Schumann is obvious throughout but it’s in the three signature song cycles – the twinned Liederkreis sets and Dichterliebe (previously recorded with Huber in 2003 for RCA Red Seal and comparing favourably with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in its seamless shifts between introspection and vitality) – that he proves himself. He brings the same illuminating attention to detail to bear on less revered pieces such as the Op. 83 Three Songs and Op. 107 Six Songs. In all instances he is alert to the subtle interplay between the text and Schumann’s music. What results are performances that balance the inherent drama fuelling, or at least underpinning, the majority of the 299 featured songs with an acute interrogation of both lyric and melody that reveals one jewel after another. 

Especially committed advocacy is given to the later songs of 1849-1852, Gerhaher adamant in refusing their inherited association with Schumann’s deteriorating mental health. Tellingly, he concludes his extended peregrination with the “downward spiral” of Op. 90 Sechs Gedichte und Requiem – Romantic contrariness condensed into 16 sublime minutes – the finale, serving as due commentary on all that has come before, “a coming together of spirituality and sensuousness”.

The 215-page booklet includes fine booklet essays by Gerhaher and Laurenz Lütteken, short notes on the songs – usefully indexed by first lines and authors – and texts but, disappointingly, no translations.

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Composer: Schumann
Works: Complete Lieder
Performers: Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber
Label: Sony Classical 19429870112 (11CD)

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