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Bernarda Fink [Photo by Klemen Breitfuss courtesy of machreich artists management gmbh]
19 Apr 2012

Folk songs that aren’t folk songs

The Wigmore Hall Dvořák series culminated in a concert by Bernarda Fink and Roger Vignoles.

Wigmore Hall Dvořák Series — Dvořák, Brahms, and Slovenian Songs

Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano; Roger Vignoles, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, 13th April 2012.

Above: Bernarda Fink [Photo by Klemen Breitfuss courtesy of machreich artists management gmbh]


Fink is the foremost Dvořák mezzo around. Her recordings (some with Roger Vignoles) are benchmarks. So it was a surprise that the Wigmore Hall wasn’t packed out. Maybe it was the Friday 13th factor, maybe it was Easter when people are out of London. Perhaps, ironically, it was the simple fact that Fink’s Dvořák and Brahms are so well known; audiences forget how live performance is nothing like recording. Fink is a natural recitalist (not all singers are, even if they’re good). She smiled graciously and sang as if she was singing for a private gathering of friends. That’s aplomb! Dvořák and Brahms songs aren’t meant for flashy display. Bernarda Fink makes them feel personal, as natural as one-to-one conversation.

The recital was preceded by a talk by Professor Jan Smaczny. Talks and programme notes these days are often inept filler, but Smaczny is in an altogether different league. He’s a genuine scholar with first hand, original knowledge. He speaks about Dvořák’s manuscripts with the authority of someone who knows them well. “Dvořák used them like a diary, noting daily events in the margins”. Many Czech specialists don’t communicate well in English, so our perceptions are shaped by anglocentrism. Smaczny understands the context of Czech culture and Dvořák’s part in the evolution of Czech music. We don’t hear Smaczny often enough in London but should. This is the sort of quality the Wigmore Hall should embrace.

Dvořák’s orchestral music is permeated by his affinity for song. As Smaczny says, songs “were pivotal to his developing musical style, and frequently gave notice of important changes of direction in his expressive language”. Thius it was good to hear Fink and Vignoles start with Dvořák’s Six Songs From the Queen’s Court Manuscript op 7 (1872). The texts were based on what were believed to be authentic medieval sources, but were modern invention. No matter, for they inspired awareness of Czech national identity. The poems are pastoral, like imitation folk song. Gentle, rolling piano creating a pleasant background to the sharp sibilants in the words. The warmth in Fink’s voice complements the images of summer and youth, yet she catches the undertones of sorrow. Sensucht, one might say if the songs were German.

Yet in the last song, “Jahody” (Strawberries) Dvořák becomes much more adventurous. Fink captures the strange unresolved tension in the first strophe. A girl has been gathering strawberries but a thorn has cut her foot and it’s infected. She can’t walk and her lover is angry. The piano part describes his impatience and the sound of his horse galloping off, taking the lovers to another place where they snatch a few moments of love, before dashing home again. With its sudden changes of pace and mood, the song is unsettling, almost a miniature opera. Fink expresses the urgency and fear that makes the song dramatic, without overdoing the “voices” or excess histrionics.

Brahms’s Deutsche Volkslieder (publ 1894), are similarly art song masquerading as folk song, so Fink and Vignoles performed four songs, a sample of Brahms’s two large collections of Volkslieder that aren’t actually Volkslieder. Mature Brahms and early Dvořák don’t really compare, but Fink and Vignoles followed these with five of the ten Dvořák Biblical Songs from op 99 (1894) (no.s 1, 2, 3, 8 and 10) to even the score. One instinctively thinks of Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge (op 121 1897) which of course was written for low baritone, That’s an idea, programme them together with different singers.

Bernarda Fink has made Dvořák Five Biblical Songs one of her trademarks. She sang it at the high profile Dvořák anniversary concert in Prague Castle in 1991. (read more here and listen to a clip). She’s sung these songs many times at the Wigmore Hall, so if her performance on this occasion wasn’t as compelling as usual, it evoked many good memories.

It was good to hear how Slovenian contemporaries of Brahms and Dvořák approached song in their own language. From what we heard this evening, Benjmin Ipavec (1829-1908) and Anton Lajovic (1878-1960) wrote pleasant though undistinguished Biedermeyer. Lucilan Škerjanc (1900-1973) though, is more cosmopiltan and original. In “Evening Impression”, Fink’s sensitive phrasing and upward soaring lines created emotion and shape. The poem, by Igo Gruden is lovely, even in translation. Fink and Vignoles make a case for it as mainstream repertoire. To hear more, there’s a recording by Fink and her brother Marcos ( a bass baritone), both native speakers, on Harmonia Mundi.

Fink and Vignoles performed another set of Brahms songs, including the wonderful Von ewiger Liebe (op 43/1 1894) before returning to Dvořák In Folk tone (op 73, 1886). Perhaps Fink had been waiting for them, since her singing now moved from attractive to truly inspired. These songs are sophisticated in the best sense. Moods change swiftly, hinting at submerged meaning, tantalizing the listener. Fink’s keening legato gave the first song, a lullaby, a searching edge that made one realize it wasn’t about a baby. The piano part, too, is unashamedly sensual. In the second song, a girl is scything and sees her forner lover. The piano sounds bright and optimistic, but the vocal part breaks into strident staccato “Šuhaj, šuhaj z druhej strany”. She taunts him fiercely, but inside her heart is breaking. Fink repeats the final line “už si v mojom srdci riastla” wistfully, with great tenderness. Simiarly, the lilting piano in the third song sounds happy, but the firm deliberation in Fink’s voice suggests that this steel has been forged through fire. More defiance still, in the final song where the piano prances like the swift pony. Fink’s voice dances along too, but Dvořák uses the sharp Czech sibilants to suggest the “arrow” which cuts through the lover’s heart.

Anne Ozorio

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