04 Oct 2017

Anne Schwanewilms sings Schreker, Schubert, Liszt and Korngold

On a day when events in Las Vegas cast a shadow over much of the news this was not the most comfortable recital to sit through for many reasons. The chosen repertoire did, at times, feel unduly heavy - and very Germanic - but it was also unevenly sung.

Indeed, it was very much a recital of two distinct halves. Franz Schreker’s 5 Lieder, Op.3, which opened the evening, are songs about personal loss and grief (“Ich sitze trauernd ein Grab zu hüten”) and, frankly, Ms Schwanewilms gave a performance of them that was too tentative for my taste. It all felt rather arid. There were moments, few and far between, where Ms Schwanewilms felt able to colour her voice - at the end of the second song, Im Lenz, for example, but mostly she didn’t feel vulnerable enough. There are elements of innocence that ripple through the underbelly of these texts, but I was left with the impression she was simply uncomfortable in these songs, at least on this occasion. Das Glück was riddled with hazy phrasing, particularly at the end of stanzas. In Umsonst her diction was simply unclear. It was not the most promising beginning.

Schubert, which ended the first half and began the second, didn’t fare much better. The three Ellens Gesänge were variable - even an Ave Maria! in which her German felt unusually demotic, understated and lacking in emotional involvement. There’s no denying the brilliance with which she is able to float a phrase or note - but it was also combined with some less than ideal diction. In Ellens Gesänge III, for example, the line “Soll mein Gebet zu dir hinwehen” ended in a mush of flawed intonation and incomprehension. An interval, however, makes all the difference because the Schubert that she sang in the second half was at a somewhat different level of inspiration. Schwestergruss was both fleet and incisive with much more pointed phrasing and detail - it was little short of brilliant in conveying the sense of gothic horror that cascades through much of it. Likewise, Der Tod und Das Mädchen had rhythmic precision and a mounting sense of terror. Whereas much of the singing in the first half of the recital had been plagued by a lack of discipline, here it was very detailed and precise: the staccato passagework, the observation of the anacrusis, the beautifully shaped piano markings, the precision of the fermata which certainly had its mark stamped firmly upon it.

The three Wilhelm Tell songs by Liszt, perhaps because they draw on elements of musical harmony, nature and human sexuality more than they do on death and gothic horror, found both singer and pianist on happier terrain. There is a thrilling virtuosity to these songs which is almost the complete antithesis of the folk-like simplicity suggested in their narrative, though these songs unquestionably demand an emotional and expressive range that is very high. That was amply met in this wonderful performance of them. The pianist, Charles Spencer, revelled in the music of the first song, Der Fischerknabe, making semiquavers of water out of his piano keys, whilst Ms Schwanewilms evoked the calls of alpine horns through her ringing high notes. If her Schreker and Schubert had been devoid of inner-meaning and had only shallow hints of emotional depth, her Liszt was sultry and inflamed with the danger of knowing sexuality. She took risks. The third song, Der Alpenjäger was a tour de force: chords had colossal weight, marcato and staccato octaves were wrenched out with monumental force, the sustained pedal gave weight. The piano had almost orchestral power. The voice, for the first time, simply enmeshed the acoustics of the hall in a fireball of glorious sound. Mr Spencer, who had sounded so understated in the Schubert songs, was here craggy and breath-taking in his use of pianistic colour.

The Korngold songs which finished the programme were just as inspired. The Opus 22 trilogy performed here were written just after Korngold had completed his magnificent opera, Wunder der Heilane - and you can hear the influences of that opera at work in the chromatic scales, intensely lyrical melodies and vocal glissandi. The songs were dashed off with a breath-taking ease and in part it’s easy to see why they were so well done given this singer’s special relationship to the music of Richard Strauss, which is in part typical of how Korngold treats the voice here with its soaring lines. It was fitting, therefore, that Ms Schwanewilms’ only encore should be by Strauss - an effervescent and infectious performance of Strauss’ Op 49 no 8, Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen.

Marc Bridle

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano), Charles Spencer (piano)

Franz Schreker - 5 Lieder Op.3; Schubert - Ellens Gesang I D837, Ellens Gesang II D838, Ellens Gesang III (Ave Maria) D839, Die junge Nonne D828, Schwestergruss D762, Der Tod und das Mädchen D531; Liszt - Lieder aus Schillers Wilhelm Tell S292 (No.1 Der Fischerknabe, No.2 Der Hirt, No.3 Der Alpenjäger; Korngold - Was du mir bist? Op.22 No.1, Mit Dir zu schweigen Op.22 No.2, Welt ist stille eingeschlafen Op.22 No.3

Wigmore Hall, London; 2nd October, 2017.