11 Feb 2013

Bernarda Fink Residency, Wigmore Hall

For the first of her two February recitals at the Wigmore Hall, the Argentinean mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink was joined by the Hugo Wolf Quartett in an eclectic, Italian-themed programme in which singer and instrumentalists sculpted diverse and beautiful musical vistas and communicated a remarkably coherent, shared vision.

Ottorino Respighi’s Il tramonto (1914) for voice and string quartet is a setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘The Sunset’, as translated by Roberto Ascoli, and describes a lovers’ moonlit walk and the woman’s subsequent life of endless mourning following the sudden death of her beloved. Fink wove flexibly between song, arioso and recitative recounting an engaging, touching narrative, the text clearly declaimed. While the accompaniment texture is impressionistic and at times quite sparse, there is yet a remarkable contrapuntal dynamism in the string lines, which the clean, crisp playing of the Hugo Wolf Quartett brought to the fore.

The performers adeptly conveyed the quiet intimacy of the work. After a theatrical string opening, a calm, lyrical episode describes one who ‘within whose subtle being […] Genius and death contended’; here Fink’s soprano was pure, light and floating, in keeping with the simplicity of the narrative and the ‘sweetness of the joy’ experienced, before swelling warmly to convey the passion felt by the lover for ‘the lady of his love’. There was a poignant weariness in the delicate arioso when the waking woman finds her lover dead. In contrast, Fink employed a warm melodious timbre to convey the feminine selflessness of the grieving woman, ‘Her gentleness and patience and sad smiles’.

Throughout, singer and quartet were fully integrated in narration and mood-painting. There was some superb playing from cellist Florian Berner, his opulently etched lines providing harmonic direction and structural cohesion, particularly in the section depicting the glories of the natural world and the hues of the sunset — ‘lines of gold/ Hung on the ashen cloud […] mingled with the shades of twilight’ — in which the players achieved an admirable motivic clarity. After depicting a life of self-denial and duty — a ‘kind of madness’ — Fink expressively announced the woman’s final appeal for peace, the beautiful violin solo with which the work closes tenderly reinforcing the mood of bitter-sweet desolation.

Il Tramonto was preceded by an original, and surprisingly repressed and intense, reading of Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A Op.41 No.3. In his three Op.41 quartets, the composer turned from the narrative approach of his earlier orchestral works and sought inspiration from the classical masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and the Hugo Wolf Quartett were certainly concerned to create a sharply defined motivic texture, sometimes perhaps at the expense of fulsomeness of tone.

Their delicate, careful approach was, however, perfectly suited to the subtleties of the opening movement. Following a pensive introduction in which the principal motive — the sighing fall of a perfect fifth — was clearly engraved, the players established an elegant grazioso ambience, the transparency revealing the Beethovian density of Schumann’s motivic method and the intricacy of the rhythmic structures. The dislocated complexities of the main theme — in which the seemingly misaligned legato cello line juxtaposed with off-beat interjections from the other players — were wonderfully controlled.

The urgent, restless syncopations of the second movement, a theme and variations, culminated in a serene conclusion in the relative major mode, leading to a profound reading of the Adagio, in which the instrumentalists allowed themselves to indulge their more rhapsodic leanings, relishing the beautiful, song-like theme, and making much of the sudden and disturbing interruption of the repeated, march-like fragment which intrudes the relaxed lyricism.

The vigorous finale might have been even more boisterous, for Schumann’s robust, buoyant rhythms have a startling kinetic dynamism, but the four players effectively controlled the architectural arches of the rondo form, concluding with an extravagant coda.

After the interval, the focus was on Hugo Wolf’s musical response to the warm Italian South: ten songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch and the delightful Intermezzo. The latter — a rondo with richly diverse episodes and restatements — is quite radical in the way that the luscious opening melody is repeated interrupted by harmonically and rhythmically disruptive passages. The Hugo Wolf Quartett found subtle humour in the energetic vitality of the work, and presented a convincing account of this experimental work.

The Intermezzo was embraced by two sets of five songs from Wolf’s collection of forty-six translations of nameless Italian love poems, which depict the full range of emotions — passion and jealousy, ecstasy and despair — which characterise amorous relationships played out in everyday places: streets, marketplaces, churches. These rispetti from Tuscany are brief and mostly light-hearted, and the composer undoubtedly stamps his own personality on this anonymous collection; but Fink’s fluent and sleek delivery, captured the theatricality of the songs without being overly showy or self-dramatising.

Graceful and poised, Fink took us on a journey as man and woman fall, by turns, in and out of love. Fink can do ‘poised irony’ to a tee, as in ‘Wie lange schon’ (‘How I have yearned’) in which an artiste manqué longs for a ‘musician as a lover!’ who ‘with gentle mien … bows his head and plays upon the violin’. The members of the Hugo Wolf Quartett relished the musical wit, exaggerating first the lovelorn self-indulgence of the yearning would-be lover, then the inflated exuberance which greets the arrival of the long-for virtuoso, and finally the dreadful reality of the violinist’s pitiful technical aptitude.

Elsewhere Fink’s tone was intimate and personal, as in ‘Man sagt mir, deine Mutter wolle es nicht’ (‘They tell me your mother disapproves’); here Fink’s tone blossomed as she progressed from offended irritation to passionate avowal: “defy her, come more often than before!” At times, humour was to the fore, nowhere more so that in ‘Mein Liebster hat zu Tische mich geladen’ (‘My sweethart invited me to dinner’); here the accompaniment is illustrative, the accents in the quartet lines clearly mimicking the futile chopping of the ‘rock hard’ bread with a ‘knife quite blunt’.

This was a refined performance of these eloquent miniatures. It was a pity that the programme notes revealed nothing of the decision to perform these songs accompanied by string quartet, rather than piano; one would have welcomed some account of the process of arrangement for what this might have revealed about the relationship between voice and accompaniment in these songs (although the notes did remark that the tender ‘Wohl kenn’ ich Euren Stand’ employs a ‘string quartet-like texture’) — at the very least it would seem courteous to acknowledge the arranger!

This was a song recital characterised by captivating, but understated mastery. Bernarda Fink returns to the Wigmore Hall on 25th February to re-visit the Italian landscape. Accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music, Italian Passions will explore ‘the emotional extremes and the open-hearted Italian spirit’ through a performance of Veracini, Merula, Vivaldi, Albinoni and Ferrandini.

Claire Seymour

Robert Schumann, String Quartet in A Op.41 No.3; Ottorino Resphigi, Il tramonto; Hugo Wolf, Five Songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch (‘Nein, junger Herr’, ‘Wie lange schon’, ‘Ihr jungen Leute, die ihr zeiht ins Feld’, ‘Gesegnet sei das Grün’, ‘Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschwiegen’); Intermezzo; Five Songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch (‘Mein Liebster hat zu Tische mich geladen’, ‘Wohl kenn’ ich Euren Stand’, ‘Man sagt mir, deine Mutter wolle es nicht’, ‘O wär’ dein Haus durchsichtig ein Glas’, ‘Wenn du, mein Liebster’)

Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano; Hugo Wolf Quartett: Sebastian Gürtler, violin; Régis Bringolf, violin; Gertrud Weinmeister, viola; Florian Berner, cello. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 6th February, 2013.