Unlike Alma Schindler, who was forced to give up all her ambitions to compose when she married Gustav Mahler, Robert Schumann positively encouraged his wife Clara to continue writing music after their marriage in 1840. The bicentenary celebrations of Clara Schumann’s birth last year focused on her own works as well as on her influence as one of the most important pianists of the 19th century, and chances to hear her music look likely to continue – the Academy Song Circle’s survey of her songs, 29 of them, was one of three events in London in the last week of January featuring her music.
Apart from four settings composed when she was a teenager, all of Schumann’s songs date from the 1840s and 50s – in the last 40 years of her life, after Robert’s death in 1856, she abandoned composition altogether. But unlike her piano music, which seems to have been influenced more by Chopin than by her husband, Clara’s songs are much closer to Robert’s, both harmonically and in the rich detail of their piano writing. Even one of the earliest songs, Walzer, from 1833, includes an unmistakable reference to a theme from his Op 2, Papillons.
She shared texts and poets with her husband too. Her setting of Heine’s Lorelei is one of her finest songs, arguably more vivid than Robert’s setting of the same words, while her version of Rückert’s Er Ist Gekommen would stand comparison with many of his Myrthen songs. Elsewhere, though, there seems to be a weakness for sentimental, maudlin verse, which produces rather generic settings.
The four singers and two pianists in the Academy Song Circle, all graduate students at the Royal Academy of Music, had clearly worked hard to polish their performances of what must have mostly been unfamiliar music. Perhaps those performances were a bit too correct, too schooled, and one longed for more personality to come through; sometimes it was left to the pianists, Benjamin Mead and Julia Klimek, to supply the missing character.
The soprano, Samantha Quillish, brought real flamboyance to the Six Songs from Rollett’s Jucunde; mezzo Yuki Akimoto made the most of Er Ist Gekommen. Tenor Robert Forrest was at his best in another Rückert song, O Weh Des Scheidens, while baritone Michael Ronan brought touching clarity to Beim Abschied (words by Friederike Serre), but hearing just a few of Clara Schumann’s best songs might have left a deeper impression than en masse.