The Libella Quartet, one of Boston’s newer vocal quartets, had a good idea for late Wednesday afternoon, September 8. They presented a short concert featuring Schumann’s vocal chamber music at St. John the Evangelist, a Beacon Hill Episcopal church on Bowdoin Street, at 5:30 p.m. The quartet (soprano Lisa Lynch, mezzo-soprano Carola Emrich-Fisher, tenor Jason Sobol, and bass-baritone Matthew Wright, accompanied by pianist Juliet Cunningham) presented the Minnespiel, Op. 101, the Spanishes Liederbuch, Op. 74 and a rarity, “Der Contrabandiste,” which is found in an appendix to Op. 74. The audience was sparse, which could be attributed to any number of reasons.
First up was the Minnespiel (“Love Game”), a late work of Schumann, from 1849, featuring four solo songs, two duets, and two quartets. After the wondrous year 1840, the so-called “Liederjahr,” when Schumann finally was able to marry his love, Clara Wieck, and subsequently in a burst of creativity wrote 168 songs, he decided to compose for voice and piano, a practice he had formerly abhorred. The presence in his life of Clara may have had something to do with this change of heart.
Based on poems of Friedrich Rückert, the Minnespiel are full of passion verging on the operatic. Sobol, like the composer he is (as well as a tenor), movingly led with an eight-stanza song about unrequited love. This set the template. Lynch followed with a song about the female perspective to such attentions. But it was the two quartets that really revealed the Libella’s strengths. The last piece, “As truly as the sun shines” exhibited admirable blend of voices.
After a brief pause, Wright returned to render “I am the smuggler,” a strange song about a smuggler and his horse trying to avoid the patrols.
Sporting fresh roses, the quartet returned to sing the Spanish play of songs, which, like the love game, features various combinations of voices. Particularly moving was one duet, “Liebesgram,” sung by Lynch and Emrich-Fisher; it is based upon a 16th-century poem by Christobel de Castillejo, a poem whose bleakness is overwhelming. Emrich-Fisher, who is German, excelled herself here. Although the songs were composed originally for a bourgeois Berlin living room, the two quartets distinguished themselves once again by the operatic quality of their singing. Schumann had composed his one opera, Genoveva, in 1848. Perhaps this influenced him.
Excellent as this foursome sounded, they were let down by the pianist, who was named in the program but not favored with a biography. Playing on a sweet but reserved 1880s-vintage Steinway with the lid raised, she followed the singers well but made numerous mistakes in the more demanding parts of the accompaniments. Schumann, who clearly had the virtuosity of his wife in mind, often had the piano comment on the texts of the poems with elaborate codas. This pianist was not the partner Schumann expected.