Bevan and Drake travel to 1840s Leipzig

As soprano Sophie Bevan explained to me recently (

The Schumanns at home

), Drake had selected four songs to represent each of five of the
Schumanns’ illustrious international guests, and the hosts themselves. At
the start of the evening, he invited us to imagine ourselves at a musical
soirÈe in the Schumanns’ piano nobile apartment, being entertained
by some of the cultural elite of the mid-nineteenth century. As Schumann
himself said of musical life in Leipzig, ‘What an abundance of great works
of art were produced for us last winter! How many distinguished artists
charmed us with their art!’

With such a cornucopia of lieder from which to choose, one wonders how
Drake settled upon his selections. Certainly, one could discern distinctive
musical ‘voices’, and it was interesting to hear Clara Schumann’s gentle
melodising beside Chopin’s folk-tinted melancholy, or Liszt’s blending of
fervent human passion and reverent spirituality. And, as the lieder weaved
from German to Polish and back again, with diversions into French and even
English, a truly international conversation unfolded. But, there was
variety of expressive range within the song-quartets, too. Moreover, Bevan
had remarked that many of these songs were new to her, and many were also
new to me and so the programme offered numerous fresh discoveries and

This was a very engaging recital, both performers communicating with
directness and sincerity. Despite the ‘newness’ of the material, Sophie
Bevan was impressively ‘off score’ for many of the songs and took evident
care to capture the spirit of each lied through the manner of performance.

She seemed a little nervous at the start of the recital, which was her
debut at Middle Temple Hall, but still conveyed the tender intimacy of the
opening quartet of songs by Clara Schumann. The textural repetitions,
fairly low register and narrow range of ‘Liebst du um Schˆnheit’ (If you
love for beauty) delicately draw us into the conversation; ‘Sie liebten
sich beide’ (They loved each other) was more emotionally heightened but
closed with a rueful, sweet-toned whisper, ‘Sie waren l‰bgst gestorben/Und
wuflten es selber kaum.’ (They died a long time ago and hardly knew it
themselves.) ‘Der Mond kommt still gegangen’ (The moon rises silently)
revealed the subtleties of Clara Schumann’s harmonic inventiveness and
pianistic writing; Drake traversed sensitively from the relaxed chords of
the opening to the more intense piano postlude. But, if the first three
songs had shared a quiet serenity, then ‘Am Strand’ revealed a more
turbulent expressive mode which allowed Bevan’s soprano to blossom
ecstatically in conclusion: as she called to the spirits to murmur tidings
of her beloved, the piano’s softening response duly obliged.

The lieder by Clara Schumann and the fours songs by Fanny Mendelssohn
Hensel that followed led me to wish that performers would more regularly
embrace the sizeable song repertory by such women composers. Fanny
Mendelssohn wrote 249 songs, more than twice as many as her brother Felix,
and ‘Fr¸hling’, with its bubbling, trilling piano part, frequent wide vocal
leaps and rapturous blooming at the close revealed an audacious, exuberant
approach to song-writing. The harmonic explorations of ‘Warum sind denn die
Rosen so blafl’ (Why are all the roses so pale?) were similarly responsive
to the text, as the wandering phrases seemed to echo the unanswered
questions of Heine’s poem. Again, Drake’s discerning selections offered
expressive range, the tenderness of ‘Nachtwanderer’, contrasting with the
powerful epiphanies of ‘Bergeslust’ (Mountain rapture).

One of the strengths of Bevan’s performance of these opening songs was the
lack of artifice and the sincerity of her engagement with the texts, and I
felt that this quality came even more to the fore in the four songs by
Felix Mendelssohn. She seemed to relax, perhaps because the songs are more
familiar, and ‘Die liebende schreibt’ (The beloved writes) was sensuous and
impassioned. Songs by a mandolin-playing page, by rustling pond reeds and
by a coven of witches ensued, and Bevan and Drake moved smoothly from the
jaunty spiritedness of ‘Pagenlied’, through the richness and resignation of
‘Schilflied’, to the darkness and defiance of ‘Hexenlied’.

In the first of four songs selected from Chopin’s Polish Songs
Op.74, the mazurka-like ‘?liczny chlopiec’ (Handsome lad), Drake
immediately established an insouciant air, employing a playful rubato. His
fluent pianism imbued these songs with conviction and drama, most
particularly in ‘Wojak’ (The warrior), summoning a crisp vision of a
galloping steed whose impatience was equalled his war-mongering master’s
elated urgency. At the close, after a momentary stay, man and beast sped
onto the bloody battlefield and disappeared over the horizon, the piano
diminishing with wonderful control.

Given that these are Chopin’s only contribution to the vocal repertoire,
it’s perhaps surprising that the Op.74 songs are not performed more
regularly; until, that is, one reflects on the fact that there are probably
few singers who would avow to being fluent in, or familiar with, Polish.
Bevan pronounced the text with care and suppleness but did not have quite
enough declamatory confidence to capture the dramatic intensity of the
texts (two of which are anonymous, with additionally one each by Chopin’s
contemporaries, Stefan Witwicki and Bohdan Zaleski). That said, ‘Dumka’ had
a poignant Slavic sorrow and Bevan’s pianissimos were touching and
perfectly tuned, while the narrative of the Lithuanian song (‘Piosnka
litewska’) unrolled naturally, Drake’s staccatos giving life to the
dialogue and Bevan displaying rich vocal quality in the lower register.

Drake is the curator of Hyperion’s ongoing project to record Liszt’s
complete songs (to date four volumes have been released) – a worthy and
necessary endeavour, given that even lieder enthusiasts may be unaware that
Liszt composed any songs other than ‘Die Loreley’. Here, the pianist made
miniature tone poems of the accompaniments, sparking and trickling with
transparency in ‘Die stille Wasserrose’ (The silent water-lily), and
conjuring the majesty of Cologne cathedral in ‘Im Rhein, im schˆnen Strome’
(In the Rhine, the beautiful river). Best of all was the brooding
concentration of the introduction to ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’ (You who
come from heaven).

Bevan revealed a strong feeling for the Romantic sensibility in this
sequence, and the vocal range with which to express it. Often her soprano
descended quite low, as at the openings of ‘Die stille Wasserrose’ and ‘Im
Rhein’, and she used vocal colour to imbue these songs with a
quasi-spiritual ambience. Elsewhere, such as at the contemplative close of
‘Ihr Glocken von Marling’ (Bells of Marling), the mood was ethereal, and
the high melody at the end of ‘Im Rhein’, which floated above Drake’s low pianissimo accompaniment, shimmered with reverence for ‘Our
beloved Lady’. In contrast, ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’ was impelled by
anxious but irresistible urgency and intensity, attaining rapturous
transcendence in the final, surging line, ‘Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!’
(Come, ah come into my breast!).

Bevan showed a similar affinity for a distinctly French sensibility in
Berlioz’s ‘Chant de bonheur’ (Song of bliss), in which the melodic line
freely hovered between song and recitative, and was matched by the rhythmic
flexibility of Drake’s accompaniment. ‘Petit oiseau’ had classical, even
‘antique’, elegance and Bevan’s piano invitation, ‘Viens Ècouter
ses chants touchants’ (Come and listen to his moving song) was focused and
compelling. ‘Adieu Bessy’, a setting of a poem by Thomas Moore (one of one
of nine composed in 1829 to translation by Berlioz’s friend, Thomas
Gounet), possessed rhetorical weight despite the sweetness of the vocal
line; ‘ZaÔde’ was propelled by Drake’s insistent rhythmic motifs and the
ecstatic, fluctuating colours of Bevan’s soprano.

Four songs by Robert Schumann brought the soirÈe to a close. Bevan mastered
the vocal expanse of ‘Widmung’ (Dedication), the melodic line unfolding
lyrically above the fervent murmurings and motions of the piano
accompaniment. Again, she showed that her lower register has real focus and
presence, falling with the change of mood – ‘Du bist die Ruh, du bist der
Frieden’ (You are repose, you are peace) – as, paradoxically, tension was
injected by the three against two rhythmic dialogue between piano and
voice. ‘Die Einsiedler’ (The hermit), too, benefitted from an even vocal
line, while the final song, ‘Auftr‰ge’ (Messages) burbled excitedly
propelled by an intoxicating lyrical and poetic impulse.

Claire Seymour

Sophie Bevan (soprano), Julius Drake (piano)

Clara Schumann – ‘Liebst Du um Schˆnheit’, ‘Sie liebten sich beide’, ‘Der
Mond kommt still gegangen’, ‘Am Strande’; Fanny Mendelssohn – ‘Fr¸hling’,
‘Warum sind den die Rosen so blafl’, ‘Nachtwanderer’, ‘Bergeslust’; Felix
Mendelssohn – ‘Die Liebende schreibt’, ‘Pagenlied’, ‘Schilflied’,
‘Hexenlied’; FrÈdÈric Chopin – ‘?liczny chlopiec’, ‘Dumka’, ‘Piosnka
litewska’, ‘Wojak’; Franz Liszt – ‘Die stille Wasserrose’, ‘Ihr Glocken von
Marling’, ‘Im Rhein, im schˆnen Strome’, ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’;
Hector Berlioz – ‘Chant du Bonheur’, ‘Petit oiseau’, ‘Farewell, Bessy’,
‘ZaÔde’; Robert Schumann – ‘Widmung’, ‘Muttertraum’, ‘Der Einsiedler’,

Middle Temple Hall, London; Monday 22nd January 2018.

image_description=The Schumanns at home, Temple Song 2018
product_title=The Schumanns at home, Temple Song 2018
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: The Schumann Haus in Leipzig