16 Dec 2011

Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall

Combining innate musicianship and superb technique, Anne Schwanewilms showed once again that she can run the emotional gamut from light-hearted joy to deep anguish in this flawless performance with pianist, Charles Spencer.

The songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn offered Schwanewilms the opportunity to demonstrate a great range of characterisation and dramatic situation, embracing intimacy and exuberance. She garnered a surprising and delightful drollery in the opening ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’ (‘How to make naughty children behave’), her insouciant ‘cu-cuckoo’ ringing clear as a bell. Charles Spencer delivered the accompaniment’s piquant chromatic inflections with a deft touch. The simple folk-like ambience was sustained in the bucolic ‘Verlorne Müh’ (‘Wasted effort’), as the shepherdess attempts to lure her mate, offering first to go walking, then a ‘morsel’ from her basket and finally her heart. A glossy tone and seamless, bel canto legato prevailed. I wondered whether that this effortlessly fluency at times affected the clarity of diction; but the German speaker accompanying me reassured me that Schwanewilms’ use of the text was subtle but clear, and undoubtedly idiomatic.

In ‘Ablösung im Sommer’ (‘The changing of the summer guard’), the cuckoo returned, this time evoked by the piano whose perpetuum mobile signifies the evolutionary progression of the seasons — as the cuckoo sings himself ‘to death’ and the nightingale assumes the mantle of summer’s song-bearer. Both here and in the following ‘Ich ging mit Lust’ (‘I walked joyfully’), Schwanewilms’ breath control was superb, enabling her to shape extended rhapsodic lines; her velvet tone is a cloth of many colours, and she captured the myriad hues of the natural world - the verdant softness of the ‘green wood’, the silky sheen of the moon’s’ charming, sweet caresses’.

Liszt’s setting of Hugo’s ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ permitted a brief excursion into the French language, and Schwanewilms expressively and convincingly responded to the text, before returning to her native tongue for lieder from Schiler’s Wilhelm Tell, songs in which Liszt evokes the Alpine landscape with grandeur and passion. The grassy lake in ‘Der Fischerknabe’ (‘The fisherboy’) shimmered stilly, but as the waters lap around his breast and call from the depth, increasingly impetuous scalic runs in the piano conveyed the potency of his ‘bliss of delight’. ‘Horn calls’ discreetly underpinned the beautifully resonant vocal line in ‘Der Hirt’ (‘The shepherd’), and the juxtapositions of major and minor tonalities enhanced the warm, tender ache in the voice. The more tempestuous ‘Der Alpenjäger’ (‘The alpine hunstman’), in which thunderous tremblings accumulate, climaxed with a striking piano postlude. An intense and impassioned setting of Heine’s ‘Loreley’ brought the Lisztian sequence to a close, and enabled Schwanewilms once again to demonstrate her consummately controlled delivery of narrative.

Four more songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn followed after the interval. ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ (‘Farewell and Parting’) presents a broader emotional and dramatic canvas; the first stanza depicts the breathless, theatrical departure of three horsemen who gallop through the gate beneath the beloved’s watchful gaze, while second strikes a more poignant note, exploring the pain and finality of departure and death. The power and precision of Schwanewilms’s climactic high notes in the first part contrasted with the final farewells, 'Ade! Ade!’, which she delivered in a loving, almost vulnerable whisper.

The cuckoo and nightingale both returned for ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (‘In praise of high intellect’), this time competing to be the prize songster in a musical contest adjudicated by a donkey. Schwanewilms relished the individual ‘voices’ given to each ‘character’, and concluded with an alarmingly realistic ass’s bray! After the gentle ‘Rheinlegendechen’ (‘Little Rhine Legend’), in which the atmospheric rocking of the piano accompaniment perfectly captured the lapping waters as they flow timelessly to the ocean, in the final song from the sequence, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’(‘Where the splendid trumpets sound’) Schwanewilms displayed her lustrous, rich tone to full effect, signifying a transition from the whimsical naivety of Mahler’s early songs to the complex emotional profundities of the composer’s five Rückert Lieder.

Here, Schwanewilms and her accompanist rose to majestic heights of musicianship. The contemplative intimacy of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (‘If you love for beauty’) was particularly stunning. Schwanewilms can produce an effortless, floating line, spinning out a high thread of sound, endlessly and ethereally until, almost weightlessly, the thrillingly tender pianissimo disperses into the air. She balances eloquence and grace with deep affective insight, as was supremely apparent in a spell-binding rendition of ‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’). Here, the sustained focus of her lower range was in evidence, the controlled and crafted phrases indicating the valiant endurance of the protagonist. The final song, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world) probed expressive depths, closing with a spine-chilling piano coda; the long silence which subsequently embraced performers and audience alike was a testament to the epic scale of the emotions evoked and communicated.

Schwanewilms seem to have it all: unfailingly precise intonation, a polished, gleaming sound, almost superhuman breath control. She also has considerable stage presence and self-assurance: utterly in command of the voice and the material, she revealed a profound understanding of these songs while retaining a sense of freshness and spontaneity. The communication between singer and pianist, and with the audience, was sincere and generous. No wonder the applause was rapturous.

Claire Seymour


Mahler — From Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen; Verlorne Müh; Ablösung im Sommer; Ich ging mit Lust.

Liszt — Oh! quand je dors; Lieder aus Schillers ‘Wilhelm Tell’; Die Loreley.

Mahler — From Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Scheiden und Meiden; Lob des hohen Verstandes; Rheinlegendchen; Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. Five Rückert Lieder.