Christoph Richter violoncello
Dénes Várjon piano
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart
SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded February 2008, Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano (Romanzen, Romancendres), and July 2007, Stadhalle Sindelfingen (Gesänge der Frühe)
Romance and ashes: not only do these two words comprise the portmanteau that is this album’s title, but they also describe the makeup of the music therein. We may easily praise Romancendres for the ingenious and fascinating concept that lies behind it, and would certainly be far from wrong in doing so. Yet we do well to recognize the passivity of its subjects who, having themselves returned to ashes, continue to inspire “romance” in countless listeners as the unwitting inspiration for new explorations in sound. Much of the album’s genesis stems from a fortuitous confluence of personages and events surrounding the year 1853, when a young Johannes Brahms first visited the Schumanns in Düsseldorf and the symptoms of Robert’s mental breakdown would soon become too obvious to ignore. The latter was, of course, the source of much dismay for his wife Clara, who even took to burning some of his final compositions for fear of tainting his legacy. From these biographical anecdotes Heinz Holliger has pieced together an audio scrapbook of cold facts and suppositions, culminating in a sort of verbal and instrumental detection that defies category.
Clara Schumann was perhaps the most underrated composer of the nineteenth century, albeit one of its most hailed performers. Her 1853 Drei Romanzen—originally for violin (swapped here for cello) and piano—are as enchanting as can be. Richter and Varjón achieve a remarkable separation between their instruments, coming together and separating with the practiced skill of longtime dance partners. The music flows in turns like a bubbling stream or a strong river current, never losing its pastoral edge in the face of more urbane resolutions.
Heinz Holliger’s identically scored Romancendres (2003) gives us a more cryptic, though no less emotive, look back in time. This work seeks to do more than recreate Robert Schumann’s Five Romances, among the handful of pieces silenced by his wife’s hands, and which exist only as they are described in a letter from violinist Joseph Joachim. Rather, they become a meticulous and bipartisan slog through the pathologies of both spouses. As if to make this duality clearer, the piano is played as much on its inner strings as it is topically, making for a subtle effect that is soon vanquished when the music snaps and looses its hidden energies. The playing, like the music, harbors a finely nuanced amalgam of sanity and infirmity. Having listened to this album numerous times, I’ve come to notice that the transition from Schumann and Holliger is hardly apparent anymore. In spite of the surface-level differences between the two, a like-minded connectivity remains evident throughout, at some moments interlocking while at others hanging only by a tendon.
In 1853, Robert Schumann composed five piano miniatures under the title Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn). Though written just weeks before the Romances, thankfully they survived. The original title for Schumann’s pieces was Diotima, the name given to Susette Gontard, with whom the poet Friedrich Hölderlin was in love and who inspired his magnum opus Hyperion. Incidentally, Schumann would write just one more work for piano: the Theme with Variations in E-flat, the central motif of which Schumann believed to have been dictated to him by a ghost, but which was actually one of his own, having made its most recent appearance in the slow movement of his Violin Concerto not one year earlier. A specter would also seem to haunt Holliger’s monumental piece for choir, orchestra, and tape, which takes more than its title from Schumann’s penultimate pieces. A consonant, almost parochial choral riff sits uneasily on a tenebrous drone before bleeding into a veritable gallery of echoes, voluminous peaks, whispered asides, distorted instruments, and percussive threads, making for a Scardanelli-Zyklus in miniature (in fact, this piece dates from 1987, placing it in the latter half of the cycle’s fruition). The orchestra functions as a repository of emotion, releasing its torrential conclusions in the final two movements.
The lack of English translations in the liner notes is somewhat frustrating—as when, for example, voices read off autopsy reports of Schumann and Hölderlin—even if the intent comes through all the same. Either way, this is no mere concept album but an album about concept, one concerned with the vestiges of insanity, destruction, and of the boundless creativity to be found in both.