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Classical 101

Schumann's Voices

If you know anything about the life of composer Robert Schumann, then you know he had issues. Whatever serious infirmity caused him to suffer wild mood swings, hear voices in his head and eventually decant himself into the Rhine has been variously (and posthumously) "diagnosed" as manic-depressive disorder, syphilis, schizophrenia or all of the above, depending on the prevailing clinical zeitgeist and, shall we say, unique mood swings of each writer. Such problems are, of course, no laughing matter, especially when they send their victim to an early grave, literally and metaphorically speaking. Schumann was young enough when he met his end in an asylum outside Duesseldorff, but really the world had lost him years before to the demons that had eroded his faculties. Sorry as this state may be, and one-dimensional as some of Schumann's belated diagnoses may seem, the composer's writings do give us a sense that he might have channeled some of his psychosis (if that's what it was) into his creative work. Two of the voices in his head, those of Florestan and Eusebius, led extracranial lives as characters in Schumann's colorful music journalism, fomenting aesthetic discussons of equal parts erudition and whimsy. These characters also show up in Schumann's beautiful, often quirky music, perhaps most notably in Carnaval where they rub shoulders with a crowd of oddballs in Schumann's personal Commedia dell'Arte. This interweaving of Schumann's interior world with the exterior world of his creative products leaves those of us who revere the composer's music with a, frankly, creepy question: would Schumann's music have the same lyric beauty and endearing eccentricities - in short, would his music be the same - had he not suffered lifelong from physical and/or mental illness? We'll never know, of course, and some might argue (indeed, have argued convincingly) that such bio-hermeneutics only get us so far. Still, whatever it was that made Schumann's music odd was also one of the things that made it great. But before moving too far afield, I'd like to define what I mean by Schumann's "music" in the first place. Schumann's music resides on a single continuum that runs from the deep interior to the blatantly exterior realms of the composer's world. We must think of his music in terms of that which does sound and that which does not - or might not - sound but is there nonetheless. The dots on the page are Schumann's music, and so are the lives of Florestan, Eusebius and the whole Schumannian cast of characters, including those who might have made it no farther into the world than a movement title listed on a concert program, and whose private conversations with Schumann might have met their fate and washed away in the cold and watery Rhine. This image brings me to the new recording of Schumann's signature song cycle Dichterliebe by tenor Mark Padmore and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout. In the abstract, recording a Romantic song cycle with a fortepiano instead of one of our modern-day keyboard behemoths is a great idea; even if the vocal performance practice might be less graspable, we can perhaps come closer to a sound Schumann might have recognized with a keyboard instrument more like the piano of his own day. But with all gain comes some loss, and the Padmore/Bezuidenhout Dichterliebe leaves me to wonder whether the use of the fortepiano, as intriguing and beautiful as it is, was too costly in other ways. For, while the fortepiano gives this Dichterliebe a sound we're not at all used to hearing in lieder recordings, it also does away with some aspects of Schumann's music that is there but not heard. And I must wonder whether any Schumann interpretation that however subtly and unwittingly neglects this aspect of Schumann's music really understands the inward as well as the outward aspects of Schumann's music.