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Sophie Karthäuser [Photo © Alvaro Yanez]
02 Jul 2014

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

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.

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sophie Karthäuser [Photo © Alvaro Yanez]


All these qualities were much in evidence in this diverse programme of songs by Mozart, Clara and Richard Schumann and Poulenc, in which Karthäuser was sympathetically accompanied by pianist Eugene Asti.

Classical poise and grace were the order of the day in the opening four songs by Mozart. However, Karthäuser did not fail to bring considerable dramatic energy to the small forms. In ‘Das Veilchen’ (The violet) the folk-like vivacity was superseded by darker shadows in the minor key central stanza — in which the violet, ripe for picking by the shepherdess, laments the transience of its beauty — the veiled pianissimo unison between voice and piano characteristic of the sensitive communication between the performers throughout the recital. A rasping ‘Ach’, as the unheeding shepherdess draw near, brought a note of humour and realism to Goethe’s Romantic imagery.

The languorous falling 6th which commences ‘An die Einsamkeit’ (Be my consolation) was expressively shaped, and the strophic melody delicately phrased; this song also offered a glimpse of the soprano’s impressively focused and plush lower register. In the more expansive and rhetorical ‘Abendempfindung’ (Evening thoughts), the performers switched readily between lyrical and dramatic moods. Asti’s piano postlude was particularly expressive, reflecting the sentimentality of Joachim Heinrich Campe’s text. In contrast, ‘Der Zauberer’ (The magician) sparkled from Asti’s initiating upwards sweeps, through the melodic chromatic twists, to the piano’s final impetuous, spiralling demisemiquaver descent. Karthäuser and Asti made a persuasive case for this neglected region of Mozart’s oeuvre.

The tempestuous opening of Clara Schumann’s ‘Er ist gekommen’ (He came in storm and rain) marked a striking shift to a world of Romantic turbulence, and Karthäuser took pains to inject an urgent thrill into her powerful soprano as the poet-speaker sings of her fervent communion with her beloved. Asti’s airy postlude perfectly captured both the mood of quiet resignation and the image of the fading figure of the lover as he journeys onwards.

Richard and Clara Schumann collaborated on settings of texts by Rückert in 1840 and Richard wrote to his publisher, Friedrich Kistner: ‘My wife has composed some very interesting songs, which have inspired me to compose a few more from Rückert’s Liebesfrühling. Together they should form a very nice whole, which we should like to publish in one book.’ These songs (Clara’s Op.12 and Richard’s Op.37) are deeply expressive of their love. Karthäuser does not have a naturally velvety tone, but in ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (If you love for beauty) she controlled the lyrical lines with assurance and expressivity. The transparency and delicacy of ‘Die gute nacht’ (The good night) closed the sequence with poetic intimacy, but the best of the Clara Schumann songs was ‘Warum willst du and’re fragen’ (Why enquire of others), the piano introduction establishing a flowing momentum and Karthäuser showing meticulous care as she responded to the text. After the radiance of the rising, exclamatory assertion, ‘Sondern sieh die Augen an!’ (look at these eyes!), the third stanza began with a beautifully hushed whisper, ‘Schweigt die Lippe deinen Fragen’ (Are my lips silent to your questions), growing in intensity and with well-judged ritardando, ‘Oder zeugt sie gegen mich?’ (or do they testify against me?). This was singing of deep insight.

Richard Schumann’s Frauenliebe und —leben Op.42 (A Woman’s Love and Life) concluded the first half and again Karthäuser’s wide-ranging tessitura and rounded lower register enhanced the tenderness and elation of these songs. ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ (He the most wonderful of all) was expansive, conveying a deep Romantic ardour, Asti’s repeating quavers quivering like a beating heart, and the well-crafted bass line providing a sure foundation for the voice’s outbursts of passion, while the dotted rhythms of the rising counter-melodies in the right hand engaged effectively with the voice. The changes of tempi and subtle rubatos of ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen’ (I cannot grasp it). in which the woman exclaims her disbelief at having been chosen by her beloved. were skilfully handled; and the piano’s staccato chords help to generate excitement and restlessness, which were ultimately subdued by the closing major tonality cadence.

The low register of ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ (You ring on my finger) suggested the woman’s confidence and security, and the soprano unleashed her powerful instrument in avowing, ‘Ich will ihm dienen, ihm leben, ihm angehören ganz’ (I shall serve him, live for him, belong to him wholly). A brighter vocal tone conveyed the exuberance and joy of the wedding preparations enacted in ‘Helf mir, ihr Schwestern’ (Help me, O sisters), while the performers shaped ‘Süsser Freund’ (Sweet friend) with dexterity, driving towards the moment when she tells her new husband of her dream that one day she will awaken and find his visage gazing up at her. The lullaby ,‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust’ (On my heart, at my Breast), was perhaps less successful, Karthäuser’s voice less focused and the oscillating piano motif lacking absolute clarity; but, the sudden sweeping away of happiness in ‘Nun has du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ (Now you have caused my first pain) was affecting, as both voice and piano steadily plummeted, as she bows over her now-dead husband, Asti’s eloquent postlude encapsulating the tragedy of this brief lyric.

After the interval, Karthäuser and Asti presented a comprehensive selection of songs by Poulenc representing the full spectrum of the composer’s eclectic idioms and diverse forms — from flippancy to serenity, declamation to lyricism. However, the nine settings of the symbolist poet, Paul Éluard, which ‘Tel jour tell nuit’ (Such a day, such a night) are remarkably consistent in their mood of calm mystery, and from the opening song, ‘Bonne journée’ (A good day), Karthäuser’s appreciation of the relationship between the flowing contours of Poulenc’s idiosyncratic melodies and the harmonic twists and nuances which underscore the text setting was vividly apparent. Both this song and the subsequent ‘Une ruine coquille vide’ (A ruin empty shell) conveyed the elusiveness of Éluard’s imagery through the soprano’s limpid tone and the tranquillity of the accompaniment. The rippling accompaniment of ‘Le front comme un drapeau perdu’ (My forehead like a surrended flag) shattered the composure and built into a whirling agitation, and the brief song, ‘Une roulotte couverte entuiles’ (A tiled gypsy wagon) added to the unsettled mood, for Karthäuser’s low voice was focused but restrained, and the ending — ‘Ce melodrama nous arrache/ La raison du coeur’ (this melodrama rips from us the hearts’ sanity) — disturbingly abrupt.

‘A toutes brides’ (Riding full tilt) was full of brightness and spirit; the striking clarity of line in ‘Une herbe pauvre’ (A meagre blade of grass), and the placid high piano chords were reminiscent of the controlled aloofness of Satie. A brisk, intense account of ‘Je n'ai envie que de t'aimer’ (I long only to love you) was followed by ‘Figure de force brûlante et farouche’ (Image of force fiery and wild) which retreated from its initial passionate imagery of black hair tinted with gold and engulfed tainted stars, restoring the predominant serenity. In the closing lines — ‘Intraitable démesurée/ Inutie/ Cette santé bâtit une prison (obstinate immoderate/ useless/ this health build a prison) Karthäuser’s soprano assumed a cold steeliness, capturing the stiltedness of the text. She adroitly shaped the gradually intensifying melodies of the concluding ‘Nous avons fait la nuit (We have created night), rising to an ecstatic passion which was prolonged in Asti’s moving postlude.

The first of three mélodies to texts by Apollinaire, ‘Voyage à Paris’ — one of Poulenc’s more glib frivolities — was exuberant. In contrast ‘Montparnasse’ was introspective, conveying the self-reflective doubt of the poetry; Karthäuser’s elegant melodies possessed a nonchalant stillness, the falling vocal glissando at the close spilling into a dark, exploratory postlude suggestive of the beloved’s balloon-like eyes which float away haphazardly in the air. Completing this trio of songs conjuring images of Paris, the closing bars of the dreamy ‘Hôtel’ delicately evaporated like the speaker’s cigarette smoke, ‘Je ne veux pas travailler je veux fumer’ (I do not want to work I want to smoke).

The seven songs which form ‘La courte paille’ (The short straw), settings of Maurice Carême), were more whimsical and mischievous. The gentle lullaby-rocking of ‘Sommeil’ (Sleep) swelled in intensity as Karthäuser dramatically painted the dream landscape. ‘Quelle Aventure!’ (What goings-on!) and ‘La Reine de coeur’ are fairy-tale absurdities, the first depicting a flea in a carriage pulling along an elephant who is absentmindedly sucking up a pot of jam, and the second presenting a Queen who waves an almond blossom. Asti and Karthäuser were alert to the humorous chromaticisms and dissonances which add musical piquancy to the nonsensical texts; and the understated lyricism of the soprano’s undulating, asymmetrical melody in ‘La Reine’ were beautiful.

The juxtapositions of mood were clearly defined (often the performers made a significant pause between the songs). After the playful diversions of the sequence, the slow final song, ‘Lune d'Avril’ (April moon), re-established a subdued stillness; in the descending vocal melody of the final lines Karthäuser wonderfully captured the dreaminess of the imagery — ‘soleilleux de primevères, /On a brisé tous les fusils …’ (sumlit with primoses/ all the guns have been destroyed) — concluding with the repeated chant, ‘Belle lune, lune d’avril, Lune’.

In ‘A sa guitare’ (To his guitar), Asti’s trembling textures and overtones mimicked the poet-speaker’s beloved instrument, beneath a beautiful placid vocal line. ‘Les chemins de l’amour’ (The paths of love) journeyed into twilight worlds, an elusive pianissimo conjuring ‘the paths of memory’. Here, the smooth, stepwise vocal line, ornamented with expressive leaps, conversed with the piano’s entwining countermelodies and was supported by a steadily moving piano bass, wonderfully displaying the simple profundity of the composer’s means and message. Karthäuser and Asti left us no doubt of their appreciation of Poulenc’s expressive nuances, and lured us into his imaginative world.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Mozart: ‘Das Veilchen’, ‘An die Einsamkeit’, ‘Der Zauberer’, ‘Abendempfindung’; Clara Schumann: Four Lieder to texts by Rückert; Robert Schumann: Frauenliebe und —leben; Poulenc: Tel jour, telle nuit, ‘Voyage à Paris’, ‘Montparnasse’, ‘Hôtel’, La courte paille, ‘A sa guitare’ ‘Les chemins de l’amour’.

Sophie Karthäuser, soprano; Eugene Asti, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 30th June 2014.

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