David Perkins, Globe Correspondent | October 17, 2007
We know the beginning of the story of Robert and Clara Schumann: The romance between the child virtuoso and the impulsive young composer. The furtive kisses. Robert's proposal. Clara's father's objection. The lawsuit. The victory. Robert's outpouring of love songs in 1840, his "Year of Song." It is rarely mentioned that Clara's own first songs, written at Robert's urging early in that year, were as good as his at that point - possibly even better. "Er ist gekommen" is a masterpiece, with great emotional range and shading.
Perhaps this was because Clara's happiness was mixed. Robert had gained a bride, but Clara had lost a father and her childhood. Alas, despite Robert's encouragement, she wrote only a few more songs in her lifetime. But she had grounded him. In his great song cycles later that year, "Dichterliebe" and "Frauenliebe und -leben," he could express his own anger and grief.
These thoughts arose during a performance Sunday at Emmanuel Church of "Liebesfrühling" (Op. 37), the song collection Robert and Clara wrote together in their wedding year. The concert opened the fourth season in Emmanuel Music's multiyear survey of Robert Schumann's chamber music. It showed director Craig Smith's thoughtfulness as an explorer/programmer and his exceptionally fine touch as an accompanist. (The second concert is Sunday; two more will follow in the spring.)
Baritone Aaron Engebreth and mezzo-soprano Krista River shared the set of Five Songs grouped as Op. 27 by Robert Schumann. These are lovely short pieces with a folk-song simplicity, written with the breathlessness of a young man who has love in sight. Both singers have handsome tone and good diction. The tempo and approach, however, were a bit slow and heavy. Smith described these songs as "woodchips" from Schumann's workshop. They come off well if sung lightly, almost offhandedly, as sketches from a notebook.
The Lydian String Quartet undertook Schumann's String Quartet in F Major (Op. 41, No. 2), one of three written in 1842 and dedicated to Mendelssohn. It is a giant hothouse plant, with many fronds and tendrils. It shows off Schumann's recent study of Beethoven's counterpoint; at the same time, the florid passagework and grand gestures (accelerandos, arpeggiated chords, thick pizzicati) point to the string serenades of later composers. The Lydians gave much pleasure, although there were some intonation problems, and they seemed to be picking their way through the piece carefully.
Then came "Liebesfrühling," the Schumanns' setting of 12 poems that Friedrich Rückert had written to his wife in their marriage year. Clara's "Er ist gekommen" and "Liebst du um Schönheit" and Robert's almost operatic "Rose, Meere, und Sonne" were sung by River with verbal nuance and a lovely stage presence. She always suggested a world beyond the song. Robert's bluffer songs were delivered in full voice by Engebreth. Again and again, Smith did something marvelous - highlighting an inner voice, or lingering on a phrase - in the accompaniment, to which Schumann often gave the last precious word.