01 Jun 2011
Brahms Liebesliederwalzer, Wigmore Hall, London
Any performance of Brahms and Schumann four part songs is an occasion.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro has a libretto by Lorenzo daPonte based on the French play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro) by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.
In the first of pianist Julius Drake’s three-part series, ‘Perspectives’, our gaze was directed at Gustav Mahler’s eclectic musical responses to human experiences: from the trauma and distress of anguished love to the sweet contentment of true friendship, from the agonised introspection of the artist to the diverse dramas of human interaction.
The Los Angeles opera company marketed its spring production of Rossini's La Cenerentola as Cinderella though there is no opera by that name. The libretto of La Cenerentola is not the Cinderella story we know.
The Paris Opéra has not staged a full Ring Cycle since 1957, but its current season will conclude with a correction of this grand operatic gap.
Washington National’s 2012-2013 season continues this spring with a production of Giacomo Puccini’s first successful opera.
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,