It’s almost the “wondrous month” of May, and while Berlin has clearly decided that the 2023 vibe is icy weather and police brutality, not birds and blossoms, it’s never too late manifest the tardy appearance of spring. In that spirit, here is a playlist that, taken together, forms an “ultimate” version of Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” Op. 48, on poems by Heinrich Heine. I didn’t quite manage the 75 recordings Olivia Giovetti listened to for her ultimate “Winterreise,” but still heard more than enough to lead to sing-screaming renditions of “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” in the shower. You’re welcome, neighbors. 

A hot French lawyer and the author: “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (2011)

When I was 23 and doing my postgrad degree in composition, I brought the music library’s score of “Dichterliebe” home to have something to practice during Christmas vacation. At Charles de Gaulle airport, one of those public pianos was close to my gate, and since I didn’t have anything memorized, I played a little bit from “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai.” 

After a few minutes a very attractive, dashing man—suit, mid-to-late 30s, French—came up to me. “You can’t play ‘Dichterliebe’ without the vocal part,” he said.

“Will you sing it?” I answered.

And he did, beautifully. I played, much less beautifully. (In my defense, I was transposing.) Before we got to “Aus meinen Tränen sprießen,” his flight to Hong Kong began boarding. He left, and I never saw him again. 

Cheesy? Yes. Sort of the whole point of “Dichterliebe”? Also yes.

Honorable Mention: Peter Schreier and András Schiff: “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (2002)

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My leaden playing at Charles de Gaulle aside, most interpretations of “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” are too slow. This version sets a good tempo and then keeps it, maintaining rhythmic integrity where many lean too hard on daydreamy rubato. Also, the bell-like way Schreier sings the word Verlangen, or “desire,” is effortlessly sexy. 

Josef Protschka and Helmut Deutsch: “Aus meinen Tränen sprießen” (1988)

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This song should have the delicacy of a bunch of flowers. Forget to change their water—as I invariably do—and the whole thing withers. Protschka and Deutsch’s interpretation is so ethereal it’s barely there.

Lotte Lehmann and Bruno Walter: “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne” (1941)

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Lotte Lehmann’s agile operatic soprano works surprisingly well in “Dichterliebe,” especially in the contracting rhyme structure of this movement. Her slightly breathless phrasing in this song shades Heine’s text with exactly the right hysteria: The narrator’s obsession with their lover has made enjoyment of life’s other pleasures impossible.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake: “Wenn ich in deine Augen seh” (1997)

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Bostridge and Drake’s choice to perform the words “Ich liebe dich” (“I love you”) at a barely audible volume is inspired—a deliberate understatement of the crux of the matter, a clarity apart from all the capital-R Romantic language of the poem. In Bostridge’s interpretation, there is never any doubt that heartbreak is coming.

Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees: “Ich will meine Seele tauchen” (2019)

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The silky color summoned by Prégardien and Gees in their “Ich will meine Seele tauchen” is a perfect match for immersive imagery of the song; they make time stop for 56 blissfully erotic seconds. Coming up to the biting air of reality will not be easy. 

Charles Panzera and Alfred Cortot: “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome” (1962)

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Many singers turn the dial to 11 on their most intimidating, massive colors in the first verse of “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome.” The danger, though, is that the narrator sounds pompous. Charles Panzera, accompanied by Alfred Cortot, finds a broad timbre capable of filling a space like the Cologne Cathedral while remaining strikingly intimate.

Nina Dorliac and Sviatoslav Richter: “Ich grolle nicht” (1956)

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“Ich grolle nicht” is most often done rashly. When it goes well, that creates a shudder-inducing implication of violence; when it doesn’t, it sounds merely petulant. Nina Dorliac and her husband completely flip the script in their version: They perform the song in Russian and at an absolutely glacial tempo. The effect is of a scorned lover whose rage has faded to embers. The flame is low, but the burn is hotter than ever.

Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier: “Und wüßten’s die Blumen, die kleinen” (1994)

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Prégardien and Staier are all romantic melancholy and wistfulness in this song, all nightingales and flowers and yearning. Until they reach the word zerrissen— “torn.” The spell breaks, and the mood lurches from self-indulgent to vindictive. In one word, the archetypal journey of the Romantic hero.

Fritz Wunderlich and Hubert Giesen: “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen” (1965)

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Wunderlich gives attractive but inappropriately drunk wedding guest in this live recording, which is much more exciting than his survey with Giesen on Deutsche Grammophon. Wunderlich’s voice is beautiful, but in the repeated lines, his volume outpaces the piano’s noticeably: He’s like the bore whose opinions you can hear several tables down. Wunderlich is complaining about the noise, but he also is the noise, manspreading unrequited love. 

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Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber: “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen” (2004)

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Gerhaher’s intonation is so immaculate you could eat school cafeteria Sloppy Joe off it. His vibrato is natural, yet so unobtrusive it barely registers. In “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen,” he adds to this stark precision the round, dark color of a muted viola. When Gerhaher climbs up the little motif that makes up the line “Löst sich auf in Tränen,” I dare you to resist the mimetic effect and keep your eyes dry.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus: “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen” (1957)

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Everybody goes folksy on this song, which makes sense. But no one goes quite as far for the comic effect as Fischer-Dieskau in this version with Jörg Demus—Fischer-Dieskau’s tone is nasal and his diction almost operetta-like, while Demus’s piano tonks away. 

Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout: “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen” (2010)

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The translucence of Padmore’s tenor and Bezuidenhout’s fortepiano are especially well-suited to the “pale man” who narrates “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen.” In this interpretation, we realize just how fragile the narrator is, even compared to the flowers who deign to pity him. 

Gerhaher and Huber: “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” 

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The only repeat album on this list, but Gerhaher and Huber’s “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” is the most modern treatment of this most modern song in the cycle. The two artists stretch each silence to its breaking point; Huber plays the simple cadences with a Webern-esque pointillism. As Joseph Conrad writes in Heart of Darkness, “We live, as we dream—alone….”

Julian Prégardien and Éric Le Sage: “Allnächtlich im Traume” (2019)

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Julian Prégardien, son of Christoph, has remarkable diction in this song. Every word is clear, and it feels like a conversation—intimate in a way we know is only possible in the narrator’s dreams. Prégardien’s unpretentious phrasing leaves us with the heartbreaking banality of loss, a choice that lands better than more common pathos-laden interpretations. 

Aksel Schiøtz and Gerald Moore: “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” (1945-1946)

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Heard today, Schiøtz’s warm, Golden Age tenor sounds like the appealing relic of an early time—of the “magic land” in the text. His interpretation of “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” is one you want to crawl inside. 

Matthias Goerne and Daniil Trifonov: “Die alten, bösen Lieder” (2022)

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Few performances of “Die alten, bösen Lieder” match Goerne and Trifonov for ominous majesty—just right for this song’s evocation of dark forests and strange rituals. The duo also realize that this four-minute piece is really in two movements. Schumann composes the end of his narrator’s suffering in the dreamy postlude to “Dichterliebe.” With Trifonov’s trademark liquid tone, this music becomes more than a fade to black—it is genuine deliverance. ¶

Correction, 4/28/2023: A previous version of this article stated the date of Lotte Lehmann’s recording of “Dichterliebe” as 1954. The correct date is 1941. VAN regrets the error.

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...