01 Jun 2011
Brahms Liebesliederwalzer, Wigmore Hall, London
Any performance of Brahms and Schumann four part songs is an occasion.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
Any performance of Brahms and Schumann four part songs is an occasion.
They aren’t performed live as often as they should be because they need four singers, two pianists and plenty of flair.
At this recital in London’s Wigmore Hall, the singers were Bernarda Fink, Sylvia Schwartz, Michael Schade and Robert Holl. The pianists were Malcolm Martineau and Justus Zeyen.
Appropriately, the evening began with Schumann’s Spanische Liebeslieder op 138 (1849) for they use the same forces as Brahms was to use in his two Liebeslieder Walzer op 52 and 65. Although Schumann’s song are set to Emanuel Giebell’s translations of Spanish and Portuguese texts, they’re not overtly Iberian. These charming songs would have been performed quite happily by talented amateur ensembles. This is sociable music, ideal for discreet flirations, perhaps. Weh, wie zornig ist das Mädchen, the men sing in mock alarm, in a song about an angry girl rushing off in a huff to the mountains. Then Fink sings Hoch, hoch sind die Berge about a girl upset because her lover’s headed for the hills. Joyful repartee, perfectly in order.
Brahms would have known the Schumann songs well, but, as Richard Stokes writes in his programme notes, they are not a “prototype” for the songs Brahms was to write twenty and twenty five years later. Brahms takes the concept of part song to an altogether more sophisticated level. Solo voices alternate with full ensemble, or divide into pairs. Voices sing in harmony, then suddenly revert to polyphony. Intervals and rhythms change. Sometimes the singers sing rounds, sometimes they weave intricate patterns around each other. In really good performances, the singing seems to almost levitate with energy. Significantly, Brahms called these songs Walzer, not Gesänge. They’re waltzes for the voice.
Moods change from the gruff, mock bucolic humour of O die Frauen to the elegant, arched lines of Wie des Abends where the female voices throw the words. “Einem, einem” and “Sonder, Ende, Wonne, sprühn” as if the vowels were garlands. Notice how Brahms pairs songs as partners to one another, and creates long cotillions, where songs move in formation, without a break between them.
Brahms doesn’t merely paint text, he works meaning into form itself. In Die grüne Hopfenranke, the four voices trill and entwine like the tendrils of the vine they’re singing about.
In this repertoire, Bernarda Fink was superlative. Her voice dances brightly, like the belle of the ball. When she needs depth, her voice darkens expressively. In Wahre, wahre, deinen Sohn, her voice becomes the witch/seductress who’ll kill if she can’t get her man. It’s an important song, for its adds menace to what on the surface seems a light hearted, lilting series of songs.
Robert Holl, too, was superb. Although he’s no longer in the first flush of youth, his technique is so good that he can bring agility to his voice which is rich and veers towards the darker range of his fach. He uses it well for dramatic effect, but here he moderated himself at times to blend in unison. That’s a sign of his artistic integrity. A lesser man might want to shine at the expense of the group. Holl knows that it’s ensemble that counts in these songs, not showmanship per se. He was a last minute substitute for Thomas Quasthoff, who was unwell, but Holl’s so experienced and so impressive, that it was no loss.
Some of the finest songs in both Brahms sets are written to showcase the tenor, and Michael Schade delivered well. Since the programme was devised around Quasthoff (the main pianist, Justus Zeyen, is Quasthoff’s regular partner), a Schreier or Prégardien would distract from the baritone part. Schade is good, though, providing a nice balance with Holl’s almost basso resonance.
The soprano was Sylvia Schwartz, a new name to me. She’s been in ensemble at the Deutsche Staatsoper, Berlin where her roles have included Zerlina. She doesn’t quite have the experience as the others and at times sounded pinched and exposed. It was heartening, though, to hear how Fink shielded Schwartz, giving her room so she could build confidence. Another sign of an artist who puts music before ego. Indeed, this is why part-songs like these are so enjoyable. Just as in a string quartet, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Robert Schumann: Spanische Liebeslieder op 138
Johannes Brahms: Liebeslieder Walzer op 52, An die Heimat, Der Abend, O schöne Nacht, Abendlied Neue Liebeslieder Walzer op 65,