30 Jan 2019

Diana Damrau’s Richard Strauss Residency at the Barbican: The first two concerts

Listening to these two concerts - largely devoted to the music of Richard Strauss, and given by the soprano Diana Damrau, and the superlative Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the second - I was reminded of Wilhelm Furtwängler’s observation that German music would be unthinkable without him.

As the first recital amply demonstrated, there is a linear path - in German lieder especially - that reaches its Romantic highpoint with Strauss. But as Debussy himself said it’s also impossible to resist the overwhelming power of his music and whether this is on the smallest or biggest of scales (both of which we had here) Strauss’s music can seem almost cinematographic. Debussy had in mind Ein Heldenleben when he pointed to the “book of images” that Strauss’s music resembles - and it was this very work which closed the second concert.

Diana Damrau, it should be said, is not one of those sopranos whose voice easily resonates in a hall the size of the Barbican. The lack of power, and sheer heft, the occasional unwillingness to project the voice more dramatically, can sometimes make the sound she produces seem uncommonly small. But the depth, and range, of her register is quite remarkable despite this one drawback, and it’s certainly not one that is evident all the time. The big notes might feel a little compressed, but her pianissimos are astonishing. As quiet as some of her singing can be, the clarity of what she is singing is like a perfectly cut diamond. On the other hand, the shimmering, almost silver-like tone, the ability to convey youthfulness and warmth, and the unmannered phrasing, places her in a different league to many lieder singers performing Strauss today. Those floating high notes, the perfectly sustained legato and the ability to draw you into the music is often quite magical. Here we have a singer much closer to Lisa Della Casa, Lucia Popp and Margaret Price rather than, for example, Jessye Norman - who in one of her last Wigmore Hall recitals sang Strauss with such power you could feel the waves of sound washing over you.

Damrau opened her first recital with five songs by Liszt. Liszt’s canon of lieder, and his place in the pantheon of great song composers, has never seemed as assured, even today, as those written by Schubert, Wolf or even Strauss. And yet, the line between Liszt, Wolf and Strauss - all of which appeared in this first recital - couldn’t really be clearer. Although perhaps not immediately obvious at first, this intuitive and clever programming of Damrau’s opening concert pointed towards the climax of the second. This was entirely about perspective, about the revolution in Romanticism, and the Neo-German path of lieder and orchestration which went beyond lyricism and opened up the gates towards drama and expressionism in song, and the great Tone Poems that Strauss composed at the close of the Nineteenth Century.

One of the dominant features of this recital was how much the piano mirrored so much of the text - and it began with Liszt. Helmut Deutsch was certainly much more than an accompanist in these opening Liszt songs - though perhaps the somewhat symphonic nature of some of the piano writing, allied with Damrau’s slightly more introspective singing, made him overly dominant at times. In ‘Die Loreley’, for example, the sweeping, flowing - even unrelenting - power of the Rhine was a little more turbulent and overwhelming than one sometimes hears in this song. A stronger voice might have made the piano writing seem less overloaded - but it was thrilling, even if the magic shifted from the voice to Liszt’s piano scoring. But despite this, Damrau often embraced the Homeric - in ‘Die Loreley’ the luring of sailors to their deaths conjured up allusions of the Sirens in The Odyssey: she was at once seductive and devastating in her ability to wreak torment as a temptress of fate. If the vocal strength sometimes fell a bit short, there was never a shred of doubt that Damrau was as fine a storyteller as we’re likely to hear in the concert hall today.

If there was death, these lieder embraced nature too. Schiller - never perhaps the most luminous, or most inspired, of poets - paints a landscape of innocence and boyhood in ‘Der Fischerknabe’. This opening song set the trajectory of where Damrau was going with her Liszt lieder (which was almost to become a microcosm of the two concerts themselves). Just as the voice takes you inwards, the shifts in tonal and vocal colour fuse a distinct narrative. Perhaps more suited to Damrau’s quicksilver, lighter voice the shimmering movement of the water achieved greater reflection, and more balance with Deutsch’s playing, than in the third song ‘Es war ein König in Thule’ which sometimes seemed to elude Damrau altogether. If there’s a simplicity to Goethe’s text here, the depths to which Liszt has gone are exceptionally more demanding on a singer. One never quite felt that the nobility of this piece, or the darker, and more mysterious palette, really quite suited her, or lay easily within her range. There’s something Faustian about this song - perhaps better achieved here by Deutsch’s lugubrious blend of darkness and weight - a distinct contrast to the magnificent second song, ‘Die stille Wasserrose’ where Damrau had been so successful in being so overtly feminine, youthful and - yes - unabashedly erotic. Of all the Liszt songs this was the one which probably hit the mark best of all - one where both Damrau and Deutsch achieved a level of harmonic unity that they never quite managed in the other Liszt lieder. The softness of the piano, the breath-taking beauty of the voice was spellbinding.

There is no question that Damrau made a very persuasive argument for these Liszt songs, even to the extent that one could argue that Liszt’s setting of ‘Die stille Wasserrose’ sounded finer than the same song by Schumann. One certainly felt at times that Damrau and Deutsch were not entirely in unison - though in part this has much to do with Liszt himself who explores significantly more drama in the piano - and Deutsch wasn’t shy in displaying this. I didn’t necessarily find Damrau’s German precise or exact - in fact, it often seemed to be quite the opposite. A tendency to meld phrases into one another, clip words here and there, became a touch grating at times. This was a noticeable problem in ‘Die Loreley’ where you often expected (or should have expected) a more rounded sound and it was simply missing. The penultimate lines of the fifth stanza, for example, ‘Er schaut nicht der die Felsenrisse/Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh’ were flexed to a state where they were pretty much inaudible.

The Vier Lieder der Mignon by Hugo Wolf were largely magnificent, however. Why Damrau should have been so strong, and compelling, in these Wolf songs isn’t hard to understand. Her gift as a singer lies in her ability to convince the listener that you are very much involved in the psychological complexity behind a composer’s imaginative re-contextualising of the words. In the case of Wolf, these Goethe settings felt incredibly well articulated and almost operatic in their depth of interpretation. Put simply, Damrau just drew you in like a viper does to its prey.

If Liszt had begun to rebalance the voice and the piano in his lieder, Wolf takes it just that bit further - and with it explores the dramatic and sensual power of a composer like Wagner, notably in Tristan, but on a much smaller scale. You sometimes felt in the Liszt songs that Damrau and Deutsch were splitting apart at times; in the Wolf lieder the effect was quite the opposite. Here, if the piano moved one way with its motivic material Damrau chose to follow it. But the obverse was also true. If in the Liszt songs Deutsch had shown he was willing to go-it-alone with the piano writing, his tendency in the Wolf lieder was to mirror more closely with Damrau’s voice.

There is certainly something disturbing, almost pathological, about Wolf’s characterisation of the Mignon setting. Helmut Deutsch instinctively sees the piano part as gravitating towards menace; Damrau, if she didn’t convey enough mystery or darkness in a song like Liszt’s ‘Die Loreley’, here enshrines Mignon with a profound sense of grief and sorrow that is manifestly deeply emotional. They were gripping to hear. Sometimes you got the feeling of a profoundly unstable relationship happening on stage (in the best possible way, it should be said). In ‘Kennst du das Land’, for example, as Damrau sang out ‘Dahin! Dahin’ you felt that Deutsch was each time on the brink of overwhelming and crushing her. Damrau would have none of it and pushed back against this ruinous cruelty by soaring above the keyboard. Wolf had sought to rebalance the relationship between his two protagonists on stage - and this was achieved with mesmerising effect by Damrau and Deutsch where neither singer nor pianist dominated the other. It was all in beautiful, perfect symmetry.

The second half of Diana Damrau’s opening recital was devoted entirely to the lieder of Richard Strauss. The chronological path of Damrau’s programme of lieder - and in the case of the second concert the Vier Letze Lieder - in one sense diverts attention away from Strauss’s singularity as a composer moving in a definite musical direction. Strauss’s songs undoubtedly look back towards the Romanticism of Liszt and Wolf - but they also embrace the Expressionism that was a hallmark of his great single-act operas, Elektra and Salome, only for Strauss to, again, look back to the Nineteenth Century in some of his final works. His output can certainly seem uneven - but so is that of Liszt and Wolf - but Strauss’s great gift was to turn a miniature piece of writing into something that was hugely impressionistic and vivid. It rather confirms the view of Strauss the composer, as described by Debussy, as one who thought largely in images and pictures.

20190126_London©PMeisel(BRSO)1051 (1).jpg Diana Damrau. Photo credit: Peter Meisel.

If there is one thing that many of Strauss’s songs have in common - and this, too, follows on from Liszt - it’s that the accompaniment can often seem orchestral. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the song which ended the recital - ‘Cäcilie’. A highpoint of this recital - perhaps the highpoint - it was simply majestic. The demands placed on both singer and pianist are huge, but here both Damrau and Deutsch had reached a state of symbiosis that was inspired. The lushness they both brought to this song was exceptional, but so was the artistry and refined technique. If you detected agility in Deutsch’s quicksilver fingers it was because he was identifying so closely with the movement of the text. Likewise, Damrau’s breath control was exceptionally precise. If she had struggled in Liszt, her Bavarian German was much more aesthetically pure in Bavarian Strauss. Some of Strauss’s phrases in ‘Cäcilie’ can seem uncommonly long, almost meandering, but perhaps none tax the singer more than the final one and to Damrau’s credit her singing of it (“wenn du es wüsstest, wenn du es/wüsstest, du lebest mit mir!) was a miracle of voice control and pristine enunciation.

‘Einerlei’ had been the shortest of introductions to this Strauss part of the recital - almost a bon-bon in its paradigm brevity - though it wasn’t until the third song, ‘Ständchen’, that the depth of Damrau’s immersion into Strauss became more apparent. There is far more urgency to the rhythms here - Strauss’s writing for the voice often paralleling the text itself in a far more descriptive and visual way. The impact that both Damrau and Deutsch brought to this felt as if both were painting the music with brushstrokes rather than simply singing or playing the notes - trees bent in the breeze, a brook babbled. ‘Mädchenblumen’, a set of four lieder in which the singer is metaphorically transformed into a garden of flowers, can sometimes seem a touch monochrome in performances. These are songs that stretch the imagination, songs which ask a soprano to walk a tightrope between simple sentimentality and deeper thinking. Strauss certainly doesn’t make life easy for his singer launching into the first song ‘Kornblumen’ without any piano introduction whatsoever. If Damrau was fractionally behind Deutsch here she more than made up for this by managing the long, even tortuous, first phrase so well. ‘Mahnblumen’ fizzed, with Deutsch especially displaying a lightness in the piano trills. With ‘Efeu’ the dynamic changes again. In a great performance of this song you want singer and pianist to intertwine with one another, the phrasing to both feel mysterious but borne of a single, irreplaceable event: “Denn sie zählen zu den seltnen/Blumen, die nur einmal blühen”. It’s exactly what we heard here, a moment of blossom that felt so very singular. With the final song, ‘Wasserrose’, we get Strauss at his most impressionist. Damrau and Deutsch rippled through the water, cadences expressed through small waves of inflected tone in the voice, with long chords on the piano that pushed Damrau to soar through them.

The Drei Lieder der Ophelia in some ways mirror the Wolf Mignon songs which Damrau had sung earlier. Taxing they may be, but they also impress with their dramatization of a character on the brink of madness and paranoia. Overwhelming in their depiction of mortality, of a death in the making, Damrau was often shattering. The huge, expansive leaps in the voice, the lurching between moments of sanity and the impending doom-laden hysteria and psychosis which will result in her impending drowning, they were visceral - like a Goya painting. She never held back for a moment in vocalising the existential crisis facing Ophelia. If the theme of water in her earlier Strauss had focused on its natural beauty, its movement, here the darkness in the voice, so often lacking in the Liszt, was elemental.

There were three encores - Liszt’s ‘es muss ein Wunderbares sein’, and Strauss’s ‘Nichts’ and ‘Morgen’. In a sense, ‘Nichts’ came closest to Damrau’s Bavarian roots - and the legato she displayed was exemplary. ‘Morgen’ was both fragile - rather as it should be - but also inhabited by a glorious pathos in which Damrau scaled down her voice to make the song seem almost endless.

Diana Damrau’s second concert as part of her Strauss residency consisted of a single work, his Vier Letze Lieder accompanied by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. I think that even if you accept that some of the works for voice and piano which Strauss subsequently orchestrated (and which Damrau had included in her first recital) - such as ‘Cäcilie’ and ‘Morgen’ - are superlative examples of Strauss’s mastery as an orchestrator none quite rival the sheer scope, or beauty, of the four songs which Strauss wrote in 1948. Few singers in my experience of hearing this work in the concert hall seem to manage to make all four songs work - though perhaps Felicity Lott has come closest. Damrau didn’t quite achieve this either - and nor did you always really feel a sense of deep and profound involvement in her singing of them.

This was one of those performances which did have moments of greatness - but it was also one which leaned heavily the other way. ‘Frühling’, so often the song which causes sopranos the most problems, was extremely fine mainly because Damrau’s more lyrical voice is so ideal for it. The sense that this music had momentum was inescapable - though Jansons had set a very fleet tempo to begin with in the strings and woodwind which Damrau was in part forced to follow. There was undeniable sweep to the voice, so when she soared above the orchestra at the end of the first stanza (‘von deinem Duft und Vogelsang’) the purity of her sound became more apparent. Likewise, there was little effort required to sustain that wonderfully ethereal extended note on “Gegenwart” which closes the song. The more autumnal mood of ‘September’ proved elusive for Damrau, not helped by a lack of poise, with much of the song’s quivering inflections coming from the orchestra’s woodwind and horns - indeed the first horn’s wonderfully played solo in the final bars seemed to dramatize Hesse’s solemn, hymnal text so much more exquisitely.

‘Beim Schlafengehen’, as in so many performances of these songs, was where this performance might have proved uneven - but it shifted into something rather special. The expectation that the voice might be rather light was misplaced mainly because Damrau has such an innate ability to think beyond the words themselves. There was considerable art on display here, as well as a beautiful technique. As with so much of her Strauss and the Wolf in her first recital, what made ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ so deeply impressive was the emotional context in which she placed this Hesse poem. The elegant way in which she managed the hugely long phrases, the impeccable pronunciation and the (mostly) unbroken lines were flawless. If she didn’t quite manage to sustain the final line “Tief und tausendfach zu leben” in a single breath without breaking the phrase at “zu” (but almost no soprano is able to do this) we were compensated with a glowingly lengthened final note on “leben” that was thrilling (and all too often abbreviated in some performances).

‘Im Abendrot’ worked too, largely because Damrau is a singer who understands that what Strauss what trying to convey in this final song is the simplicity of love. Again, the phrasing was impeccable - the voice lush enough against the orchestral backdrop but able to ride effortlessly above it, and at times merge into it. It was a magnificent ending to a performance that had unevenness, but moments of inspiration which showed such depth and beauty.

I have often found Mariss Jansons to be an uneven conductor - even a rather wilful one - but his Richard Strauss is exceptional. If his accompaniment to the Strauss songs had been almost minimalist, but imbued with a sense of wonderful clarity, it came as no surprise that his performance of Ein Heldenleben should display a similar sense of brilliance. No matter how you look at this performance - from the point of view of the conducting, the interpretation or the playing - it was magnificent. The virtuosity of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is in many ways in a class of its own - at a famous, and utterly memorable, performance of Ein Heldenleben given at the Proms in 2004 under Jansons, the orchestra played on a blacked-out stage much of the Battle Scene when the lights in the hall malfunctioned. No such problem happened during this Barbican concert but the brilliance of the orchestra, that sumptuous sound, the expressive range of its principals leaves an unforgettable impression on the listener.

Ein Heldenleben can sometimes seem an over-long and densely orchestrated work but Jansons has a gift for making this masterpiece seem neither. The clarity he brings to it is quite remarkable, in fact. Rarely have I heard the harps play with such definition in this piece - and the characterisation he asks of the woodwind is stunning. Whole desks of flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons are voiced - not simply played as instruments. Strauss is so specific in what he demands of his players it often requires an exceptional orchestra to bring if off and so you get the shriek of a piccolo, the snake-like hiss of a cymbal or the arrogance of some of the lower brass. The solo horn - played here by Eric Terwilliger - was dazzling, with breath control that was effortless. That beautiful lower string sound, the very foundation of this orchestra on which everything else is built, is like crushed velvet. That searing love music which Strauss writes for ‘Der Helden Friedenswerke’ and ‘Der Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung’ has rarely sounded so intense or voluptuous when played by the Bavarian strings, with soaring horns playing meltingly above them. Dynamics are so accurate that you can imagine every detail of this vast score in your mind - and Jansons’s control over the orchestra is absolute. Radoslaw Szluc’s solo violin was so beguiling you couldn’t but be entirely hypnotised by the playing.

One anomaly with Janson’s performances of Ein Heldenleben - and it’s been one ever since I can remember him conducting this work - is the insertion of two unmarked timpani strokes in Strauss’s score. The first (in my ancient Leuckart/Leipzig edition of the score) occurs just before M.93 at the Im Zeitmass marking and the second in the very final bars of the work when the timpani should fade from a ff to a p . I can’t think of another conductor - going as far back as Toscanini and Rodzinski in the 1940s - who does this. I think most listeners scarcely notice it - and in a performance as exceptional as this one was one can overlook this intervention.

These two concerts were largely events of some stature, placing Strauss’s vocal works in a wider historical perspective. There were flaws here and there, but the quality of the singing and, in the second concert, the brilliance of the Bavarian orchestra made for two events that were entirely memorable. Diana Damrau will return to the Barbican in March to complete this Strauss series when she will sing the closing scene fromCapriccio and give the world premiere of a new work, The Hidden Place, by Iain Bell.

Marc Bridle

Diana Damrau (soprano) and Helmut Deutsch (piano)

Franz Liszt: ‘Der Fischerknabe’, ‘Die stille Wasserrose’, ‘Es war ein König in Thule’, ‘Ihr Glocken von Marling’, ‘Die Loreley’; Hugo Wolf: Vier Lieder der Mignon; Richard Strauss: ‘Einerlei’, ‘Meinem Kinde’, ‘Ständchen’, ‘Mädchenblumen’, Drei Lieder der Ophelia, ‘Der Rosenband’, ‘Wiegenlied’, ‘Cäcilie’
16th January 2019, Barbican Hall, London

Diana Damrau (soprano), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor)

Richard Strauss: Vier Letze Lieder, Ein Heldenleben
26th January 2019, Barbican Hall, London