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Angelika Kirschlager
04 Feb 2008

Awesome Angelika Again

While I eagerly seized upon an opportunity to hear Angelika Kirschlager live for the first time, having written in very recent weeks about not one but two of the star mezzo’s current CD releases, I ventured to Frankfurt’s Alte Oper feeling a little bit like her stalker.

Above: Angelika Kirschlager


Appearances be damned, I simply could not pass up the chance to experience first hand a glorious voice deployed by an impeccable artist. I was the richer for the journey.

For this was not just any-old-concert of crowd pleasing arias by a much-recorded and marketed glam diva with a competent orchestra being paced by a conductor-as-time-beater. No, the program featured no less than Berlioz’ wonderfully complex and seldom-heard “Les nuits d’ete” and the band was none other than the luminous Kammerorchester Basel, led with insight and conviction by Paul McCreesh. This highly skilled musical ensemble proved a real partner in the total success of the program.

That Ms. Kirschlager is a treasurable recording artist with a rich and gorgeous tone was well known to me. Already an admirer, I was still not fully prepared for the scope of dynamic variations, the detailed musical observations, and the utterly secure vocal technique at both extremes of her range that she effortlessly commands. These six songs are anything but an “easy sing.” From the sprightly tune of the “Villanelle” to the moodiness of “Le spectre de la rose” and the haunting despair that creeps into “Au cimitiere” and “L’ile inconnue,” there is virtuoso singing (and playing) required throughout.

For not only the vocal line, but also instrumental solo lines are often fragmented, halting, and rangy in tessitura and volumes. It is a supreme challenge to make phrases, songs, and the whole shebang hang together, much less make it musical and meaningful. It is to the great credit of the singer, conductor, and the entire ensemble that they took us on a most compelling journey through each of these six pieces, by turns joyous, grief-stricken, questioning, and uplifting. Quite a range of shifting moods, that.

Everything about Ms. Kirschlager (save her exceptional talent) strikes me as untemperamental, unfussy, and unaffected. She appeared looking lovely in a modest black gown with little adornment, very light make-up, and a simple coiffure. She seems content to let the music emanate from within and provide all the glamor needed, indeed to be the evening’s raison-d’etre.

If she seemed ever so slightly uncomfortable on the platform at first, perhaps she was indisposed. Although never noticeable in her music-making, she turned upstage and let forth with some good throat-clearing coughs after songs three, four and five. And there was no hint of an encore to be offered.

She did use the music, which kept her eyes diverted to the music stand a fair amount of the time. While this did somewhat limit her contact with the audience, it did not really diminish her very real achievement communicating these musical jewels. For she was always totally in command of the material, scoring every musical and emotional moment. Surely she is going to either record these songs, or perform them again, or both. Her stylish rendition would be a most welcome addition to anyone’s CD collection.

Singing in clear, idiomatic French, I did sometimes wonder if it was wise to let final (unvoiced in normal speech) syllables go off the voice. Or to use an injected breathiness fairly frequently on selected syllables as a device for dramatic effect. Or to use the occasional backward-placed French “r.” I was seated very close and lost nothing, but I wondered how that might be telegraphing to the further reaches of the house.

But these are very very minor points that are mere blips in a wholly successful performance by a very major artist. In the flesh, Angelika Kirschlager exceeded all the high expectations that I had been promised by that first recital CD gift a friend sent me some years ago. I will assuredly not wait so long before I seek her out again.

The program framed the Berlioz with two staples of orchestral literature. The opening overture from Weber’s “Oberon” was as heady and jauntily played as I have ever heard it, while the second half consisted of the evergreen selections from Mendelssohn’s incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

I honestly thought about leaving at intermission, having been quite sated by the Berlioz, but damn if I’m not glad I stayed. These pieces are popular for a reason, and no recording could do justice to my first-ever live experience with them, in which I realized a whole palette of orchestral colors and minute detail I never noticed before.

The Kammerorchester Basel is a truly fine group of players, not only technically accomplished, but (are you seated?) they are a group of professional musicians who seem to radiate a joy of playing. They brought real freshness and delight to these oft-played warhorses, yes, even (maybe especially) the Wedding March, which was marked by expansive exuberance.

The audience responded in kind with a prolonged ovation that prompted an encore, the very short “Elf’s Dance” from the same composition. Maestro McCreesh was excellent throughout in coaxing results from his orchestra, but here he turned positively playful, and with the two “false endings” turned each time to the crowd with a look of “ya think it’s over?” and then quickly turning back to conduct again. In a final tweak, the violists sprung to their feet to saw away at their penultimate tremolo, and the whole evening concluded with panache.

On a side note: Even though it was a winter Monday, it was distressing to see the hall only half full at best. The large top ring was closed off entirely and unlit, but still this was a decidedly poor showing for artists of this caliber. Time was when this Pro Arte orchestra series was so heavily subscribed that it was hard to get in. Are times changing that much?

James Sohre

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