It has to be the most romantic and creative gift from a groom to his bride-to-be – a set of 26 songs by nine different poets in four books, all named after myrtle, the leaves of which, in mythology, were woven into wreaths for Venus, goddess of love.
Robert Schumann’s Myrthen represents not just an outpouring of love for Clara Wieck, whom he could now marry after a long and difficult court case with her father – and Schumann’s piano teacher – Friedrich, but also the first undamming of the composer’s song-writing career. In that remarkable year, 1840, Schumann composed more than 140 songs, many of them his best known. He had been collecting poems that he thought he might use some for settings – Heine, Goethe, Rückert verses sit alongside those by Robert Burns (there are eight of his), Byron and Thomas Moore – and although there’s no narrative thread they have common themes of love, joy and fidelity. Although there are plenty of recordings by solo artists, German baritone Christian Gerhaher and Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling share the honours here and the contrasting voices work well.
This is very much Gerhaher’s show – he has written some good liner notes and his black and white close-up adorns the cover, and for this listener he is the star with his expressive and varied palette and excellent attention to text. Tilling’s timbre can have a slightly brittle edge in the more forthright “Florestan” songs, although she does a very good job of Burns’ The Highland Widow’s Lament. Gerold Huber’s piano accompaniment is faultless throughout this varied program.
Although Myrthen is not so popular as the song cycles Dichterliebe, Liederkreis and Frauenliebe und Leben, every work in it is a masterpiece guaranteed to touch the heart of any listener, and Gerhaher and Tilling make a terrific team.