The poems are united into a coherent whole by their varied presentations of the theme of love, as expressed through imagery of the natural world, and by the continuity of the musical form - each song moving to the next without a break, creating an integrated, progressive structure.
Güra, accompanied by his frequent partner, pianist Christoph Berner, is an affable, relaxed performer. He did not sing from memory, but was poised and by no means bound to the score. Yet, despite his unperturbed manner, clean delivery and good projection, the opening songs of Beethoven’s cycle were not fully assured. The tone was somewhat unfocused, the intonation occasionally imprecise, especially as he moved to a higher register, and at times he struggling to sustain a smooth melodic line. There was certainly a clear response to the text of the opening song, ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich’ (I sit on the hill): ‘Wo ich dich, Geliebte, fand’ (where, my love, I first found you) was sweetly floated, there was urgency in the line, ‘Weit bin ich von dir geschieden’ (Now I’m far from you), and a sensitive rubato elongated ‘Die dir klagen meine Pein!’ ([songs] that speak to you of my distress). But, Güra’s diction was not always as crisp as might have been expected from a native German speaker. Berner effectively shaped the inter-verse commentaries, finding a range of colours and moods.
The eerie monotone in the middle of the subsequent song, ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ (Where the blue mountains) was more steady, however; hushed and full of longing, the tenor’s whispered phrases preceded the fresh energy and accelerando which embodied the poet-speaker’s rising passion at the close of the song.
Berner’s dancing triplet semiquavers captured the lightness of the airborne clouds in ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’ (Light clouds sailing on high); and, the performers controlled the varying tempi effectively to convey both the fleetness of the soft west winds and the rippling brook and the mournful lassitude of the poet’s melancholy.
The ornamental flourishes in the accompaniment to ‘Es kehret der Maien’ were similarly buoyant and playful, crisply articulating the babblings of the brook and the dips and arcs of the swallow’s sweeping flight. But, here and in the following song, ‘Nimm sie hin den, diese Lieder’ (Accept, then, these songs), Güra’s intonation was again a little wayward, and while in the baritonal region the tone was pleasing, focused and warm, as the voice moved across registers the fluency of the melodic lines was sometimes disrupted by changes of tonal colour, the tendency to over-emphasise particular words, and by occasionally uneven breath control.
Things settled down a bit in the following sequence of individual Beethoven songs. Güra captured some of the simple lyricism of ‘An die Hoffnung’ (Op.32, To Hope), particularly in the final stanza, the minor 6th rising delicately and poignantly as the poet-speaker describes the upward gaze of the protagonist who, in the twilight of his days, glances up and sees the gleam of celestial comforts. It was a pity, therefore, that too often the ends of phrases were ‘thrown away’, rather than carefully shaped. The lower register of ‘Lied aus der Ferne’ (Song from afar) suited Güra, and the opening had an fitting earnestness and presence, which built slowly through the song erupting in a passionate, impetuous outburst at the close, as the poet-speaker calls to his beloved to make of his home a temple of rapture, ‘die Göttin sei du!’ (and be its goddess!).
The drooping appoggiaturas of ‘Resignation’ were tenderly outlined. This song was a highlight of the first half, the urgency of the dramatic pounding chords between the two verses, contrasting vocal dynamics and strange intervallic leaps conveying the intensity of the self-consuming flame, and culminating in commanding repetitions, ‘lisch aus’(go out, my light!). In ‘Adelaide’ Güra demonstrated his dramatic insight and sense of theatre, the voice never overwhelmed by the formidable energy of the piano part. The folky brightness of ‘Der Kuß’ brought the Beethoven sequence to a carefree, light-hearted close; Güra at last settled fully into the song, and showed that he can spin a tale, producing an air of muted surprise - ‘Ich wagt es doch und küßte sie’ (But I dared and kissed her) - comically mimicking Chloe’s disgruntled scream, and insouciantly relishing the cheek of his actions in the pianissimo repetitions of ‘Doch’: ‘Doch lange hinterher’ - she screamed, ‘but not until long after’!
Things were more even and assured after the interval. In Henri Duparc’s ‘Phidylé’, Güra captured the calm melancholy of Leconte de Lisle’s verse, the air of restraint in the vocal line conveying the hesitant but burgeoning sensuality of the lover who watches the sleeping Phidylé and anticipates her awakening. Berner’s opening chords were tranquil, almost hypnotic; Introspection returned in ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ as Güra enriched his tone to suggest the headiness of the fragrant breeze and flowers. In a touching rendition of ‘Chanson Triste’ (Song of Sadness) the performers made much of the contrasts between high and low registers, and engaged in complex counterpoint and conversation, embodying the interchanges between man and nature, between the lover and moon. A tender head voice, ill-fitting in the Beethoven songs, here perfectly captured the poet-speaker’s fragile hopes, ‘Que peut-être je guérirai’ (that perhaps I shall be healed). After the incisive rhythms of ‘The manoir de Rosamonde’, ‘Extase’ (Rapture) vividly but gracefully conveyed the eroticism of Jean Lahor’s text.
In Schumann’s Liederkreis (Op.24) Güra was more responsive to the meaning of the texts (Heine) than he had been earlier in the evening. ‘Morgens steh' ich auf und frage’ (Every morning I wake and ask) began purposefully, before drifting to a more wistful air of reverie. ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ was similarly introspective; Güra displayed the ability to modulate his tone engagingly, lightening his voice when the poet-speaker’s old dreams returned to disturb his grief -‘Da kam da alte Träumem’ - and employing a darker, veiled quality to express the sadness and solitude of the final line, ‘Ich aber niemandem trau’ (I trust no one).
The fragmented, stabbing chords of the piano accompaniment in ‘Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen’ (Lay you hand on my heart, my love) grimly suggested both the lover’s heart beat and the hammering of the coffin-maker. There was an airy eeriness about the final stanza culminating in an effectively fragmented, tense close, ‘Damit ich balde schlafen kann’ (so that I soon might sleep). The rocking rhythms of ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’ (Lovely cradle of my sorrows) and the strange harmonies of the central verses suggested a mind propelled to madness; a weary stillness marked the final stanza, Berner’s eloquent postlude depicting the fatal resignation of the text.
In contrast, ‘Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann’ (Wait, O wait, wild sailor) opened with a wild cry, establishing a restless, almost violent mood that was enhanced by the piano’s pounding octaves. Ominous chords opened the final song, ‘Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen’ (At first I almost lost heart), but the poet’s fear that he ‘could not bear it’ gave way to a tentative hope - ‘Und ich hab’es doch getragen’ (and yet I have borne it -), before expectancy diffused into ambiguity and elusiveness.
Güra and Berner performed with a directness which was much appreciated by the Wigmore Hall audience. But, there are a few technical matters to be considered if the full emotional impact of these lieder is to be expressed and experienced.