Schumann’s Dichterliebe is one of the most celebrated song-cycles going, performed endless times in endless ways. But rarely so creatively as last weekend when it was staged as the musical equivalent of a pub crawl, the songs scattered around a group of houses in London’s Spitalfields with the audience moving in constant flow between them.
Under the name “Schumann Street”, it was a project devised by the Spitalfields Festival to exploit the distinctive culture of a neighbourhood that’s a sort of buffer-zone between the City and the East End, lined with early Georgian terraces first built for Huguenot refugees but now the desirable homes of design-conscious people.
These are private houses rarely open to inspection; but for the purposes of “Schumann Street” they turned into something like an Advent calendar where, one by one, doors opened on to mystery experiences. The only thing the audience knew as they went round – armed with a map – was that each house would deliver two of the Dichterliebe songs. We didn’t know which to expect, who would sing them, or how they’d be sung – an important consideration because most of the performances were dramatised in some way and involved some kind of re-interpretation that removed each song from its standard context, effectively changing its clothes.
Sometimes the re-imagining was modest: the soprano Katherine Manley at a kitchen table, writing letters as she sang to James McVinnie’s spectral, synthesised accompaniment. Sometimes it was more extreme, with Schumann’s music twisted into a rap-dance by the German hip-hop duo Apollo 47; or Im wunderschönen Monat Mai hypnotically transformed into an Indian rag by Bengali singer Shapla Salique.
My own favourite moment was to walk in from the freezing street and be confronted, in a cosy room beside a roaring fire, by the American folk singer Sam Amidon – who promptly launched into a banjo-accompanied account of Die Rose, die Lilie that you’d never hear at Wigmore Hall, although it was so joyously bizarre you might want to. And the fact that well-established names like Amidon (not to mention tenor Robert Murray, baritones Benedict Nelson and Topi Lehtipuu, and pianist Andrew West) turned up behind the opening doors, performing in the most intimate of circumstances to a handful of people, added to the sense of wonder.
Only once or twice in 30 years of writing about music have I come across a project so original, so striking, or so charged with the potential to provoke a new response to much-loved repertoire. André de Ridder, who curates the festival and invented “Schumann Street”, is clearly an administrator of genius. If I wore a hat, and the weather was less cold, I’d take it off to him.
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