Since Lieder recitals generally depend on one singer and not more, the wealth of excellent 19th-century music for two voices remains something of a buried treasure. This programme digs deep into the repertoire of duets for soprano and baritone, bringing together Schumann – one of the finest of all Lieder composers – with his prolific and perfectionist friend Felix Mendelssohn and their younger contemporary Peter Cornelius, whose music here more than matches up to the competition.
Love songs, seasonal reflections, a spot of Shakespeare, a tragic lullaby: these duets offers a plethora of poetic considerations, all of which seem to carry us back in time to the shared pastimes of a more innocent age. Each singer enjoys brief solo moments; the first item, Schumann’s ‘Dein Angesicht’, is for baritone only and is an out-take from his cycle Dichterliebe, and later his ‘Auftrage’, sung by Crowe, gives her a chance to shine in her gleaming high register. The closing Wiegenlied – in fact a cradle song for a critically sick child – is the composer’s heartbreaking memorial to his dead son.
Each composer’s writing for duet has a different and distinctive style. Schumann’s is supple, conversational, full of contrapuntal reflections and intimate atmospheres; if the Rückert setting “Ich bin dein Baum, Gartner” (I am your tree, o gardener) were a solo number, it could have been widely known and loved by now. Mendelssohn frequently in his Sechs Duets Op. 63 gives his performers the melody together in thirds and sixths; and the piano parts often share the hushed, flickering magic of his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the soft yet rapid-firing technique of the Songs without Words.
The big discovery for many listeners will be the songs of Peter Cornelius. Born in Mainz in 1824, Cornelius long outlived his two ill-fated peers and was later close to Liszt and Wagner. Though possibly best known for his comic opera Der Barbier von Bagdad, he also had a fine reputation as a critic, poet and translator – all of which suggests a preoccupation with words, something that is more than borne out in his songs. His setting of Shakespeare’s “Come Away, Come Away, Death” (in German) is a stand-out piece in the recording.
This is not remotely operatic repertoire, but instead intended for domestic entertainment in a family drawing room or salon; and the pure, round-toned soprano of Lucy Crowe together with the warm and friendly-sounding baritone of William Berger seem pretty much ideal for it. Crowe seems possibly the more sophisticated when it comes to variety of colour in vibrato and nuance, but the two blend well most of the time, and in terms of interpretation they remain in seamless, serene sympathy.
But to call this CD ‘Duet’ is in one small way misleading: there are three vital artists here, not two. The third is, of course, the pianist Iain Burnside. His lightness of keyboard touch, his expertise in balancing and supporting the voices, and his sheer, audible love for this exquisite repertoire are simply matchless.
Rating: Performance: four stars Sound: four stars
Cornelius: Duette, Op. 16, Frühling im Sommer, Zweistimmige Lieder (3), Op. 6, Zu den Bergen hebt sich ein Augenpaar Mendelssohn: Lieder-Duette (6), Op. 63, Altdeutsches Frühlingslied 'Der trübe Winter ist vorbei', Op. 86 No. 6 Schumann: Dein Angesicht, Op. 127 No. 2 ,Familien-Gemälde, Op. 34 No. 4, Das Glück Op. 79/16, Ich bin dein Baum, Op. 101 No. 3, Aufträge, Op. 77 No. 5, Wiegenlied
Jessica Duchen writes about music for The Independent and is the author of a number of novels, biographies and plays. Current projects include an opera libretto for composer Roxanna Panufnik (for Garsington Opera 2017) and a new novel, Ghost Variations, which will be published later this year (Unbound). Her popular blog JDCMB has run since 2004.