There’s nothing like a juicy back story to lend a work some spice, as in the case of Schumann’s Op. 25 song cycle, Myrthen. This 1840 piece, which is rarely heard complete, was intended as a wedding present for Clara Wieck. It was composed just after a period during which Clara’s father had prevented the couple from seeing each other, laying down punishing financial conditions for their marriage and accusing Schumann of heavy drinking. Not surprisingly, this cycle plays out like an extended diary entry on the raptures and frustrations of love. But the songs can end up sounding repetitive, especially when presented wholesale, and flanked by two sets of Schumann love duets, as it was at this Middle Temple Hall recital.
So it’s a credit to tenor Ian Bostridge and soprano Sophie Daneman that their performance was anything but repetitive. Temperamentally, these are two very different singers. Daneman is an intuitive performer, boasting a bell-like tone and a warm, tranquil stage presence. Bostridge seems more cerebral, with a tightly coiled energy that teeters on the edge of explosion. Both, however, share an emotional agility that was proudly on show in Myrthen.
Bostridge was the very essence of the frustrated lover. He easily embodied the urgency that characterises, for example, “The Highlander’s Farewell”, but also the calmer introspection of his next song, “From Hebrew Melodies”. Daneman, for her part, captured the agitation of “The Highland Widow” as convincingly as the gentle rapture of the two songs “of the bride-to-be”.
Yet the most memorable moments arrived in the duets, the most haunting of which was the Op. 78 “Cradle-song for a Sick Child”. Here we found Daneman and Bostridge in feather-light mode, as if daring one another to see how quiet they could get. The competition was ultimately won by Julius Drake, the ever versatile pianist. What a contrast this piece made with the “Lover’s Serenade”, a jolly Op. 34 duet, that tells of a randy lover’s attempts to infiltrate his quarry’s bedroom. Thanks to Bostridge’s brand of highly-charged vocalism, lines such as “O laẞ mich ein die eine Nacht” (“O let me in for just one night”), could hardly have sounded much more persuasive, or hilarious – depending on your take.