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64th Wexford Festival Opera

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The Magic Flute in San Francisco

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Anne Schwanewilms [Photo by Javier del Real]
19 Mar 2014

Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall

From the moment she walked, resplendent in red, onto the Wigmore Hall platform, Anne Schwanewilms radiated a captivating presence — one that kept the audience enthralled throughout this magnificent programme of Romantic song.

Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Anne Schwanewilms [Photo by Javier del Real]


As in their December 2011 recital at the Wigmore Hall, Schwanewilms and pianist Charles Spencer chose to open both halves of the evening with songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn — indeed they repeated the previous programme almost in its entirety, deviating only at the end when three songs by Richard Strauss replaced Mahler’s five Rückert Lieder. But, who minds such replication when the singing is so refined, the artistry so expressive and the partnership between soprano and accompanist so finely attuned.

Schwanewilms can command the world’s grandest operatic stages: her voice is luxurious and immense, and her sense of character and situation discerning and adroit. Indeed, commenting upon her recent Metropolitan Opera appearance as the Empress in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, one critic observed ‘Schwanewilms was still a powerful presence even when she was silent’. But, she always tailors the expanse and colour of her voice, and the articulation of the text, to the poetic or dramatic situation. Pianist Roger Vignoles has suggested that ‘to enter the world of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs is like opening a picture book. Each page gives us another character, another fairy tale, another episode, whether happy or tragic, in the tale of human existence’, and here Schwanewilms put her protean naturalism to superb effect in Mahler’s enchanting songs, by turns wryly comic and sweetly pastoral.

Bird-song pre-dominated. In ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’ (How to make naughty children behave), Spencer’s dry staccato and droll rubatos introduced Schwanewilms’ nonchalant presentation of the folky ballad, the ringing cuckoo-calls amusingly onomatopoeic. Sadly, the cuckoo met his demise in the following song, ‘Ablösung in Sommer’ (The changing of the summer guard), exhausted by his own lusty singing, to be replaced by the nightingale; this shift from the rustic clowning of the preceding song to transcendent lyricism was perfectly represented by the soprano’s silky tone, crystalline at the top, and Spencer’s intricate embellishments.

In ‘Ich ging mit Lust’ (I walked joyfully) the simple sweetness of the rising phrases blossomed to acquire an ecstatic sheen as Schwanewilms conveyed the pure delight inspired by ‘Die kleinen Waldvögelein im grünen Wald!’ (those woodland birds in the green wood!). Changes of key and texture were thoughtfully nuanced, the curving rhapsodic phrases uplifting, and the ending poignant — ‘Wo ist dein Herzliebster geblieben?’ (Where is your sweetheart now?). Spencer effectively pointed the piquant harmonies and twists in ‘Verlorne Müh’ (Wasted effort), and Schwanewilms proved equally convincing as both the crafty flirtatious shepherdess who attempts to entice her ‘laddie’ and the stubbornly unyielding shepherd boy himself — mulishly flinging his final refusal at the enamoured lass, ‘Ich mag es halt nit!’ (I’ll have none of it).

The later sequence of Wunderhorn songs plumbed deeper emotions, beginning with ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ (Farewell and parting). Schwanewilms bloomed gloriously through the impassioned departure depicted in the first stanza, while the rich hues of her lower register cast a more ominous shadow over the second stanza, with its allusions to darkness and death: ‘Es scheidet da Kind schon in der Wieg!’ (The child departs in the cradle even!). The closing leave-takings — ‘Ade! Ade!’ — expressed first urgent desire and then resigned acceptance.

‘Rheinlegendchen’ (Little Rhine legend) span a charmingly innocent narrative, the piano interludes playing their part in conveying imagery and feeling. ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ (Where the splendid trumpets sound) was one of the highlights of the Mahler lieder, beautifully poetic as the soprano first enriched her tone, ‘Das Mädchen stand auf, und ließ ihn ein’ (The girl arose and let him in), and then retreated, the ethereally floating phrase, ‘Willkommen, lieber Knabe mein’ (O welcome, dearest love of mine), suggesting the fragility of the wondrous, longed-for moment. Schwanewilms bestowed a warmth upon the soldier’s admission that he must soon depart, before Spencer’s alert ‘trumpet-calls’ (reminding us that in these songs Mahler conjures on the piano the diverse instrumental colours of the original orchestral scoring) whisked him away to war.

We began where we started, with a singing competition between the cuckoo and nightingale, ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (In praise of high intellect) with Schwanewilms once more relishing the opportunity to imitate the musical calling cards of the natural world.

Between the two Mahler sequences, songs by Lizst encouraged both singer and accompanist to expand their expressive range. In ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ (Ah, while I sleep) Schwanewilms demonstrated her thrilling power and consummate control, swelling and then retreating to an exquisite pianissimo with absolute assurance, and subtly modifying the colour of the final held note to underscore the change from major to minor tonality: ‘Soudain mon âme/ S’éveillera!’ (at once my soul/will wake!) Three songs from ‘Lieder aus Schillers Wilhelm Tell’ followed. ‘Der Fischerknabe’ (The fisherboy) was notable for the weightless, gliding rise in the closing line, ‘Ich locke den Schläfer,/ Ich zieh ihn herein’ (I lure the slumberer/ and drag him down), the transparent piano postlude underpinning the melodic paradox. Similarly, in ‘Die Hirt’ (The shepherd) and ‘Der Alpenjäger’ (The alpine hunstman), Spencer’s part in the communicating the narrative was not inconsiderable.

Closing the first half, an impassioned rendition of ‘Loreley’ showcased Schwanewilms’ ability to effortlessly modulate the mood and the extraordinary power and flexibility of her voice across an astonishing range. The tone was sumptuous, the legato seamless, and the complex architecture ofo the song skilfully crafted.

One of the finest Straussian’s performing on the operatic stage today, Schwanewilm offered three of the composer’s songs to conclude. The melodic lines of ‘Die Nacht’ were imbued with energy, painting a vivid portrait of darkness as it extinguishes and steals the lights of the world — ironically, the soprano’s own voice reverberated with the flowers’ colours and the river’s silvery gloss which the nocturnal visitant plunders. Spencer’s urgent, climbing lines and heavy accompanimental rhythms brought a sense of desperation to the closing verses of ‘Geduld’ (Patience). The concluding ‘Allerseelen’ (All Souls’ Day) was laden with nostalgia, most especially in the intense repetitions of longing (‘Gib mir nur einen deiner süßen Blicke’, (give me but one of your sweet glances)) and the rapture of the final cry, ‘Komm’ an mein Herz, daß ich dich wieder habe’ (come to my heart and so be mine again).

Schwanewilms knows and understands these songs, but the delivery retains a freshness which is entrancing. Quite simply, one cannot imagine anyone singing them better.

Claire Seymour


Mahler — From Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’; ‘Ablösung im Sommer’; ‘Ich ging mit Lust’; ‘Verlorne Müh’; ‘Scheiden und Meiden’; ‘Rheinlegendchen’; ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’; ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’. Liszt — ‘Oh! quand je dors’; ‘Lieder aus Schillers Wilhelm Tell’; ‘Die Loreley’. Richard Strauss: ‘Die Nacht’; ‘Geduld’; ‘Allerseelen’. Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Charles Spencer, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, 13 March 2014.

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