More than any glamorous consumptive, the anonymous narrator of Frauenliebe und -leben embodies the 19th-century feminine ideal. Appropriate to the period, if not to Robert Schumann's atypical partnership with Clara Wieck, she is defined entirely through her relationship to others: as lover, wife, mother and widow. Hers is a short story. Across a period of little more than two or three years, she sees him, she marries him, she bears his child and she mourns him; their marriage perpetually preserved at the point of mutual fascination. The music is, of course, divine. But Frauenliebe und -leben's prelapsarian account of domestic fulfilment is both a blessing and a curse to modern mezzo-sopranos. Who is this perfect husband? Who is this perfect wife? And how can singers brought up with vastly different expectations be true both to themselves and her? The answer, as shown by Bernarda Fink at the Wigmore Hall, is simple: for the 20 or so minutes of the cycle, you have to live that story.
For all the rankles over false consciousness, poetical ventriloquy and the narrator's distinctly servile language, Frauenliebe und -leben remains a singularly sympathetic document of domestic life and, in particular, motherhood. Schumann's respect for the privacy and integrity of the heroine of Adalbert von Chamisso's verse is clear in every detail: from the hesitant "Mir war's" in relating the marriage proposal, to the silent revelation of the quickening in Süsser Freund and the brooding thematic retrospective of the final playout. Bernarda Fink's impersonation of the narrator was one of the most touching and sincere examples of lieder singing that I've seen. Witnessing her progression from intoxicated ingénue to desolate widow was completely absorbing: a progression that saw face, body and voice mature and intensify in a series of vignettes that warmed girlish smiles of surprise and delight into laughter, only to strip them back to the affectless sound and empty mask of the recently bereaved. The sensation as the final chord faded was that of having listened to a close friend divulge their most intimate ambitions and memories and, for the first time, I appreciated that while this song-cycle may not reflect the messier ambiguities of marriage or motherhood, the happier aspects of both and the shock of death - "den ersten Schmerz" - are shown with startling accuracy. Here, if only for a short time, Fink's performance - the burnished, earnest coppery sound, the clipped consonants, the laughing vowels, the complete sincerity, the crucial details, and the subtle narrative arc - and that of her accompanist Roger Vignoles made the ideal believable.
Needless to say, there were other works in Fink's recital too. (The Schumann was preceded by a beautifully paced account of Haydn's Arianna a Naxos.) But listening to the banalities of Granados, Rodrigo and Nin - a predictable set from a South American singer - I rather wished I'd left at the interval. This is no reflection on Fink. In fact, it's a compliment. But nine times out of ten, if you've heard something truly magnificent, it's best to leave and savour that moment. Actually, make that two times out of two, for Imogen Cooper's performance of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto with Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was another case in point.
Pianists who move from pianoforte to fortepiano and those who do the reverse are rarely terribly convincing. As with badminton and tennis, the basic similarities only mislead. But Cooper's elegant, incisive pianoforte style translated to period performance with ravishing clarity: a clarity matched by the significantly improved strings and more reliably virtuosic wind of the OAE. Playing on David Winston's 1988 copy of an 1823 Brodmann - an instrument I crave like I've craved nothing else - Cooper's notes emerged from the misty orchestral pianissimi like a thread of rosy seed-pearls: clean, cool, unique and sweet. Smartly observed and characterful as the Weber, Rossini and Mendelssohn may have been, they were no match for this. But this was a performance that transfixed both audience and orchestra: vivacious, dynamic, organic, flexible and - in the daringly minimalist cadenza of the Adagio - genuinely suspenseful. A generous, rapt, exciting embodiment of a rare sound-world, conducted with total assurance by Elder.Reuse content