Review of “Songs of Life and Love”: A Valentine’s Day Performance

Soprano Maire Clement, baritone Davey Harrison, and pianist Sam Partyka delivered a fresh and moving Valentine’s Day recital to a full house at Integrarte, a dance studio housed in the Hope Central Church, on Saturday, February 16. Roslindalers Clement and Harrison, who also perform as the husband-and-wife bluegrass duo The Boston Imposters, presented an eclectic mix of pieces for solo voice and piano—from German lied to folk ballad and parlor song—along with a few songs a cappella; JP resident Partyka accompanied with graceful balance and natural dexterity. The intimate venue of some fifty seats allowed the music to be performed as it was meant to be: not on a large and distant stage, but in a space shared with the audience.

An entrée from Partyka set the mood with Liszt’s well-known Liebestraum (“Dream of Love”) No. 3, a swelling nocturne evoking the rising and falling of romantic passion. Then came the program’s centerpiece: Robert Schumann’s song cycle Frauenlieben und -leben (“A Woman’s Love and Life”), comprising settings of the first eight of nine lyric poems published under the same title by the German poet Adelbert von Chamisso. The texts, written in 1830 in first person, narrate a young woman’s experience falling in love—from infatuation at first sight through marriage, the birth of her first child, and the early death of her beloved. More than a few faces darkened at the piece’s tragic turn, but it was a welcome departure from the holiday’s Hallmark clichés. We are not telling the whole truth about love, the program seemed to say, unless we admit that it hurts.

Schumann’s cycle has come in for criticism for what some call its stifling and stereotyped portrait of a wife’s subservience to her husband—both lyrics and music were written by men—but it endures as the only major nineteenth-century song cycle written for female voice from an explicitly female perspective, and it was probably Schumann’s most popular cycle during his lifetime. A snub of the prototypically male Romantic hero, it dares to reveal that women have feelings, too. As Harrison described, Schumann composed the work the same month he learned that a court of law would grant him permission to marry Clara Wieck, a celebrated pianist and composer whose fame and talent rivaled Robert’s own, despite her father’s protests. Clement sang with a rich and vivid tone reminiscent of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s, bringing out the full complexity of the settings and clearly celebrating the power of the female voice to tell its own story. The first half of the program included two more lieder from Schumann and Brahms, a close friend of both Robert and Clara. (The program might have rounded out this picture—and the all-male list of composers—by including a lied of Clara’s own.)

The second half moved through lighter fare, but bittersweetness prevailed. To the predominantly female voicing Harrison added brightness as well as a banjo, accompanying Clement on the latter in a round of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” which the audience supplemented at the chorus. Tears made yet another appearance in Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the wistful W.B. Yeats poem “Down by the Salley Gardens,” sung by Clement without altering the beloved’s female pronouns. All three musicians appeared at home in these many styles, from the virtuoso textures of the high art song to the folksier rhythms and less embellished pitches of the parlor pieces. The final words of the night—“joy be with you all,” from the traditional Scottish valediction “The Parting Glass”—were a fitting conclusion to this program of love not as we want it to be, but as it really is.Matt Lord is an editor and writer based in Jamaica Plain.

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