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Anne Schwanewilms [Photo courtesy of Haydn Rawstron Limited]
21 Jun 2010

Anne Schwanewilms in Recital at Wigmore Hall

This recital was the last in a series of five put together by Roger Vignoles to celebrate the lieder of Richard Strauss — a series which, comprising 85 of Strauss’ songs, has highlighted the composer’s role as heir to the nineteenth-century German lieder masters and reminded us of the ravishing beauty and varied emotional range of these unjustly neglected songs.

Anne Schwanewilms in Recital at Wigmore Hall

Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Roger Vignoles, piano.

Richard Strauss: ‘Ach Lieb, ich muß nun scheiden’; ‘All’ mein Gedanken’; ‘Nachtgang’; ‘Geduld’; ‘Drei Lieder der Ophelia’; ‘Winterweihe’; ‘Wiegenliedchen’; ‘Wer lieben will, muss leiden’; ‘Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen’; ‘Blindenklage’; ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’; ‘Schlagende Herzen’; ‘O wärst du mein’; ‘Waldseligkeit’. Schoenberg: 4 Lieder Op. 2.Wigmore Hall, London. Wednesday 16th June 2010.


Anne Schwanewilms was the perfect partner for Vignoles in this culminating concert. Increasingly renowned for her interpretations of Wagner and Strauss, the German lyric soprano’s recent Hyperion recording of these lieder has won astonishing accolades, and in this recital she emphatically demonstrated why she is fast becoming one of the leading Strauss singers of the new generation.

Poised, authoritative and superbly assured, from the opening song, ‘Ach Lieb, ich muß nun scheiden’ (‘Ah, my love, I must leave you now’), Schwanewilms spun a seamless legato, now luminous and shimmering, now radiant and sumptuous. Each phrase was shaped with innate musicality, and while she may not have the widest range of tonal colour, she subtly shaded particular notes to draw attention to the darker emotional hues of some of these songs. Thus, while in this first lied Schwanewilms employed a generally restrained vibrato, a controlled intensification — ‘Die Erlen und die Weiden vor Schmerz in Tränen stehn’ (The alders and willows weep with pain’) — economically and intelligently pinpointed the emotional centre of this lament.

The first four lieder aptly demonstrate the oft-unacknowledged expressive range of Strauss’ songs. Moving from the swift, light Cherubino-esque effervescence of ‘All’ mein Gedanken’ (‘All my thoughts’), through the ethereal stratospheres of the floating, prosaic lines of ‘Nachtgang’ (‘A walk at night’), arriving at the sonorous, subdued depths of ‘Geduld’ (‘Patience’), with its dark nadirs — ‘hourly a funeral bell demands/the last fare of tears for the grave’ — Schwanewilms and Vignoles encompassed the dramatic and emotional variety with naturalism and ease. Schwanewilms’ pianissimo was characterised by fragile sheen and innocence; yet such delicacy was matched by a bright, radiant forte. ‘Geduld’ demonstrated Vignoles’ wonderful appreciation of both overall dramatic structure and detailed nuance, as the swinging compound rhythms suspended over low pedals gave way to a more airy texture — ‘“Patience”, you say, and lower your eyelids’ — before the resumption of the original pendulous rocking led to an intensifying accelerando and rise in tessitura, culminating in a final assertive cadence, ‘But for loving and kissing I have/ only one spring like the rose bush’.

The inclusion of Arnold Schoenberg’s name on the programme may have caused a twinge of anxiety among the Wigmore Hall regulars and traditionalists, but the ‘Four Lieder Op.2’ amply illustrated the natural development of a German lyric idiom as the certainties of the nineteenth century gave way to the modern tensions of the twentieth. First performed in 1900, these songs capture the equivocation between satisfying expressive resolution and emotional unrest and revolution, an ambiguity — conveyed through chromatic nuance, melodic unpredictability, textural variety and rhapsodic outbursts which Schwanewilms and Vignoles relished.

In the first song, ‘Ertwartung’, ‘Expectation’, the piano’s high, rippling figuration and unsettling chromaticism perfectly captured the lunar gleams eerily playing on the surface of the ‘sea-green pond’. Schwanewilms negotiated the melodic challenges with ease. Her suspended high notes created a mood of effortless rapture and indulgence — as ‘Three opals glimmer’ — before she subsided to a more blanched, reserved tone for the equivocal closing phrase, ‘a woman’s pale hand/ waves to him …’. Vignoles’ piano postlude poignantly and effectively concluded and answered the questions posed by the ellipsis.

In ‘Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm’ (‘Give me your golden comb’), the soaring melodic arches, coupled with the piano’s rapt harmonies, evoked the glorious yet troubling relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, at once ecstatic and dangerous, depicted by Dehmel’s troubling verses. In these songs, Vignoles was in complete command of the emotional landscape, as evidenced by the piano’s controlled after-phrases in ‘Erhebung’ (‘Exlatation’) where the cathartic release of tumultuous emotions was deeply affecting but never uncontrolled. In ‘Waldsonne’ (‘Sun in the forest’) Schwanesilms achieved an effortless clarity in the leaps between vocal registers; while Vignoles, descending through the registers, created a powerful narrative from different harmonic interpretations of the repeating melodic motif.

The first half concluded with Strauss’s three ‘Ophelia songs’. These are extraordinary, quasi-operatic songs, quirky syncopations, melodic twists and unsettling dissonances conveying Ophelia’s incumbent madness. The protagonist is both childlike in her innocence and world-weary in despair. Thus, in ‘Guten morgen, ’s ist Sankt Valentinstag’ (‘Good morning, it’s St Valentine’s Day’) the off-beats and staccato articulation destablised an insouciant text. And, the final song, ‘Sie Traugen ihn auf der Bahre bloß’ (‘They carried him naked on the bier’), was marked by extreme contrasts which reveal Ophelia’s mental distress: the flowing melodic continuity of the piano’s legato lines and flowing right hand figuration, and the soaring vocal phrases (‘Fahr’ wohl, meing Taube!’ (‘Farewell, farewell, my dove’)), give way to angry melancholy and the unstable tempo of the final stanzas, thereby revealing Ophelia’s mental distress and intimating the forthcoming tragedy. In these Shakespearean ‘tableaux’, the contrast between the purity of Schwanewilms’ intonation and the intimations of imminent mental collapse was deeply touching.

The second half of the recital allowed Vignoles to demonstrate his mastery of Strauss’ ‘orchestral’ writing for the piano. ‘Winterweihe’ (‘Winter consecration’) was notable for the warmth and richness of the sonorous piano bass, which set in relief the exquisite delicacy of Schwanewilms’ soaring avowal to ‘dedicate day and night to blissful love’. In ‘Wiegenliedchen’ (‘A little lullaby’) the performers’ alert but never exaggerated attention to musical and dramatic detail was in evidence, swooping vocal descents — ‘Süßes Gesicht’ (‘you with the lovely face’) — sweetly matching the translucent ripples of the piano — as the ‘Little spider, little spider,/ shimmers in the sunshine’.

Strauss’ setting of Curt Mündel’s ‘Ach was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen’ uses sly chromatic twisting motifs to underpin the humour of the text: and Schwanewilms’ wry smiles winks, and flighty, joyful vocal leaps, invited the audience’s complicity, reinforcing what an innately dramatic performer she is.

Through this recital, Vignoles’ had complete command of the textural and formal complexity of these songs, complemented by an ability to convey an astonishing variety of colour and mood — from the delicate fragility of the rippling figuration in ‘Wiegenliedchen’ to the gentle, low undulations of ‘Traum durch die Dämmerung’ (‘Dream into dusk’).

As the programme drew to a close, ‘O wärst du mein!’ (‘Ah, were you mine!’) re-established the mood of romantic rapture, the dominant resolution in the bass reached by a tantalising rising chromatic movement. The final song, ‘Woodland rapture’ (‘Waldseligkeit’), succinctly paraphrased the expressive power of Strauss’ lieder: with its suspended high notes, surprising harmonic shifts, and contrast of major and minor tonalities, the apparently simple text was transformed into a more complex narrative — as the performers reminded us of the dark volk roots of this musico-dramatic repertory.

As an encore, aptly holding a floral bouquet, Schwanewilms gave a graceful, relaxed rendition of ‘Das Rosenband’. Inexplicably, some patrons had been seen to depart at the interval, but judging from the applause most of the audience could have listened to this music all night. Both performers were ever alert to both the musical beauty and dramatic potential of these songs. Quite simply, this was magnificent singing and playing: genuinely shared empathy and wonderful artistry.

Claire Seymour

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