Every composer must have a muse, his raison d’être. For Robert Schumann that was Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher. Theirs was a forbidden romance, and Schumann’s longing for Clara manifested itself in both word and song. She pops up as a character named Beda in his highly narrative music criticism (The Editor’s Ball) and later when he reviewed a performance of her Soirées for Piano, Op. 6 in 1837, where he compared her composition to a bud before it breaks out into blossom.
But it was in 1840, the year of their long-awaited union, that Clara inspired in Robert a torrent of songs, including his wedding present for her, the song cycle “Frauenliebe und -leben” (“A Woman’s Love And Life”). On Saturday night at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall, Swedish soprano Miah Persson and pianist Malcolm Martineau performed a recital of Schumann’s songs, embellished by a few other well-chosen selections by Clara Schumann and Edvard Grieg.
Spivey Hall was to be just one stop along the way on a U.S. tour for Persson and baritone Florian Boesch, but sickness prevented her duo partner from singing this night. No matter: Persson and Martineau improvised the evening’s programming with the piano solo “Träumerei” from Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” in addition to some rarely heard late works from his “Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart” and a few of his better-known Lieder such as “Mondnacht.”
Mozart roles — Susanna, Zerlina, Fiordiligi and Elvira — have been and remain the “bread and butter” of Persson’s career. While the programming for her Spivey Hall concert did not allow us to hear the full spectrum of her vocal ability or witness the spark of independent-mindedness that often characterizes Mozart heroines, the evening did reveal Persson’s proficiency and ability to sing an incomparable vocal line. Persson channeled a voix mixte that seamlessly bridged down into her substantial low voice, an endowment that undoubtedly won her soubrette roles early on in her career.
Persson opened with Edvard Grieg’s captivating Six Songs, Op. 48, a work that she recorded on disc with Roger Vignoles at Wigmore Hall. Grieg’s inspiration came from his wife Nina, a gifted pianist and singer, for whom he wrote all of his songs. The fourth song, “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall” (“The Secretive Nightingale”) was after a poem by Walther von der Vogelweide and exhibited the strophic, folk-like compositional flavor Grieg often showed. Persson executed lilting, melismatic figures with elegance, evoking the call of the nightingale — the little bird who witnessed her kissing her beloved in the woods.
Next came Schumann’s wedding gift, “Frauenliebe und -leben.” It was perhaps the most fluid rendition I have heard. Persson made some unexpected but smart phrasing choices from the first, delineating the youthful delight of a girl who moves from infatuation to radiant bride and expectant mother to grieving widow. Her life flashed before our eyes as Persson gave us consummate dynamic variation, thrilling with a pianissimo voice at choice moments. The richness and shadow in Persson’s voice for the final song, “Nun hast du mir den ersten schmerz getan” (“Now You Have Caused Me My First Pain”) created a feeling of tremendous sorrow. And Martineau’s ability to enchant and close each song with unspoken eloquence at the piano was quite something.
Robert Schumann’s muse Clara was a composer of songs too, but only saw 18 published during her lifetime. Persson and Martineau performed one of Clara’s jewels — “Liebst du um schönheit” (“If You Love For Beauty”) — which was written during the same year as “Frauenliebe und -leben” and published just two weeks after the birth of their first child. Although some scholars maintain that it has “an occasional master touch which is not hers,” one will never know. Regardless, it’s a song that begins simply and gains glorious intensity in the last stanza. Persson infused the song with both sincerity and luxurious sound, ultimately serving both Clara and the text.