26 Sep 2011
Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall
Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber presented Schubert’s song cycles at the Wigmore Hall, London.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber presented Schubert’s song cycles at the Wigmore Hall, London.
Gerhaher has been singing at the Wigmore Hall for years, so regular Lieder audiences know him well. He shot into stardom with more mainstream opera audiences with his Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House last year, which was reviewed in Opera Today. Gerhaher’s Wolfram was sensationally beautiful, perfectly fitting the other worldly, rarified purity that is in Wolfram’s character. Few baritones have that tenor-like lightness of touch. Gerhaher’s Wolfram shimmered, but Elisabeth still chose Tannhäuser. Think what Wagner meant by that.
Vocal music, almost by definition, is about meaning. One of the fundamental differences between opera and Lieder is how meaning is expressed. It’s not simply a question of refinement or detail, but of perspective. In opera, an artist creates a character defined by plot and music. In Lieder, the character “is” the artist himself. In opera, a singer is expressing what the role represents in the context of the opera. In most Lieder, text is confined to a few lines from which a singer must extract maximum possible meaning. No help from plot or orchestra. Opera singing is more extrospective. Lieder singing is more introspective.
The Schubert song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (D795) and Winterreise (D911) allow more context than single songs, but their narrative is internal, not external. Significantly, both are journeys, where landscape marks stages in the protagonists’ inner development. Gerhaher and Huber also gave a recital of Schwanengesang (D957), but it’s not actually a song cycle but a compilation put together by Schubert’s publisher after his death.
Die schöne Müllerin is interpretively more challenging because of its deliberate contradictions — cheerfully babbling brooks and declarations of love. But for whom, and by whom? The high tessitura is meant to suggest the miller’s naivety. It’s a complication that a light, airy baritone like Gerhaher doesn’t have to contend with, so the cycle is a good test of his interpretive skills. This performance was infinitely better than his recording with budget label Arte Nova six years ago, which fortunately will be superseded with a new recording. Gerhaher uses his range more effectively, and is more secure shaping phrases. His singing is particularly attractive in songs like “Des Müllers Blumen” which could be mistaken for a love song, out of context. Yet almost from the beginning the poems hint at altogether more sinister levels. The emotional range in this cycle is much more challenging than the vocal range. In “Der Jäger”, the miller’s jealousy erupts into anger. Gerhaher expresses this through increased volume and projection, which is effective enough, but doesn’t have quite the emotional wildness that can make this song so troubling. Gerhaher’s miller isn’t menacing, even in “Die böse Farbe ”with its hints of what today we’d call stalking, but a poetic dreamer. Gerhaher is pleasant, but if you want limpid sweetness, Fritz Wunderlich sings with such exquisite poise, his emotional denial is chilling.
What made this recital unusual was the inclusion of three poems from Wilhelm Müller’s original set of 25, which Schubert did not set. “Das Mühlenleben” describes the girl at the mill, but comes between “Der Neugierige ”and “Ungeduld,” which rather breaks the mood. On the other hand placing it after “Am Feierabend” extends that mood too long. More effective is “Erster Schmerz, letzter Scherz” before “Der liebe Farbe” and “Blümlien Vergissmein ”after “Die böse Farbe”, for the spoken poems garland the two companion songs. Gerhaher’s reading of “Blümlien Vergissmein” was lyrical, leading smoothly into “Trockne Blumen,” the poem enhancing the song.
In Winterreise the protagonist is leaving behind a relatively real world and heading into the unknown. There are far fewer clues to his psyche in the text. That’s why Winterreise is so fascinating, because the possibilities are even greater. Performers have to connect to something in themselves to create an individual approach that conveys something personal to the audience.
Those who’ve come to Gerhaher and Lieder via Wolfram in Tannhäuser will admire the clean tone and even timbre of Gerhaher’s singing. There’s plenty of scenic beauty in Winterreise, and some performances I’ve heard make much of the external-internal interface, but Gerhaher describes rather than contemplates. Individual songs like “Frühlingstraum ”are beautifully modulated. Winterreise moves in stages, and the structure of this cycle is significant. The protagonist is heading somewhere, even if we don’t know what will come of it. Is the Leiermann a symbol, and of what? Does the cycle end in death, madness or, even more controversially, of resistance? Here, we’re admiring Gerhaher’s smooth technique, so for a change, it’s up to us to be the servant of the music and what it might mean.