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Reviews

<em>Schubert: The Complete Songs</em>, Wigmore Hall
01 Feb 2018

Schubert songs, part-songs and fragments: three young singers at the Wigmore Hall

Youth met experience for this penultimate instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s Schubert: The Complete Songs series, and the results were harmonious and happy. British soprano Harriet Burns, German tenor Ferdinand Keller and American baritone Harrison Hintzsche were supportively partnered by lieder ‘old-hand’, Graham Johnson, and we heard some well-known and less familiar songs in this warmly appreciated early-afternoon recital.

Schubert: The Complete Songs, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Harrison Hintzsche

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, there were a few signs of nerves at the opening of the recital, but the audience were encouraging and welcoming, and as the programme unfolded there was much lovely, and impressive, singing to enjoy from these three young soloists, who all have potentially exciting and successful futures ahead of them.

Harrison Hintzsche opened the programme with the only solo voice version of five settings of Metastasio’s ‘Entra l’uomo allor che nasce’ (Abraham’s air, from Isaac) that the fifteen-year-old Schubert made under his composition teacher Salieri’s supervision. Hintzsche’s baritone is soft-grained and fairly high-lying, and his relaxed voice production enabled him to imbue Abraham’s suffering with a gentle poignancy. The phrases of ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit’ (Who gives himself to loneliness) unfolded naturally with judicious heightening of intensity; Johnson’s inter-verse commentary was delicate yet had a warmth which was sustained by the quiet chords which underpin the second stanza, as the love stealthily creeps up on his beloved to learn if she is alone.

Of the three singers, Hintzsche’s diction was the most precise and this clarity was put to advantageous use in ‘Zufriedenheit’ (Contentment), which began the second half of the recital, where the piano’s insouciance was matched by an occasional dash of vocal swagger as the poet-protagonist sang of his self-assurance and happiness. In ‘Memnon’, the baritone created a strong sense of narrative and the drama was enhanced by the repeated tolling note in the piano’s middle voice, which Johnson subtly charged with varying emotional colour. ‘Im Jänner 1817 ‘Tiefes Lied’’ (Deep sorrow), one of the more well-known items in the programme, was assured, but I felt that the fairly slow tempo reduced the drama created by the contrast between mental confusion and distress that the text articulates.

Keller-Ferdinand-©-Keller(1).jpgFerdinand Keller

Ferdinand Keller had the challenge of commencing his contribution with ‘Serbate, O Dei custodi’ (Guard, O ye gods), another setting of Metastasio (from Act 1 Scene 4 of La Clemenza di Tito) of which Schubert made several under Salieri’s instruction at the end of 1812. This rousing da capo aria was set in angry motion by Johnson’s tempestuous introductory pounding, and Keller struggled a little to match his accompanist’s might and majesty, his tenor become a little ‘tight’ as he sought to project with authoritative power.

Johnson traded strength for serenity at the start of ‘Mondnacht’ (The moonlit night), and here Keller showed sensitivity to the text and a beguiling tone, although he still seemed a little ill at ease in the upper register and the phrasing was not consistently refined. However, in the tenor’s second ‘lunar lied’, ‘Klage an den Mond’ (Lament to the moon), Keller found a gentle earnestness which Johnson illuminated with glistening moonbeams between the stanzas, and he showed confidence and assurance when negotiating the vocal entries, challengingly pitched, in ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass’ (Who has never eaten his bread with tears).

Elsewhere there were some occasional slips of intonation, and while Keller’s voice is full, soft and warm in the middle and lower ranges, his upper notes are not quite the finished product yet. In ‘Sehnsucht’ (Longing) he demonstrated a tendency to swoop and swell up to the higher peaks. But, ‘An mein Herz’ (To my heart) was beautifully sung. Here, Keller controlled the vocal line with real skill and sensitivity, above Johnson’s tolling bass, and ‘Die Taubenpost’ (Pigeon post, from Schwanengesang) concluded the concert with an easy charm.

Harriet Burns.jpgHarriet Burns

Harriet Burns was deputising for the indisposed Gemma Summerfield (winner of the 2015 Kathleen Ferrier Award ), but this young soprano proved that she was anything but ‘second choice’. Despite having to learn the programme at short notice, Burns was impressively ‘off score’ and sang with confidence and bright clarity, communicating with directness. Though the pitch was well-centred, I found Burns vibrato a little too intense in ‘Misero pargoletto’ (Unhappy child) - another ‘exercise’ undertaken for Salieri - and the vocal line a little lacking in Gluckian elegance. But, Burns’ phrasing in ‘An die Sonne’ (To the sun) was free and joyful, and she contrasted a glistening rapture with dark richness in the lower register. ‘Die Gestirne’ (The constellations) was one of the highlights of the recital: the melodic leaps were cleanly executed and integrated within a finely etched line, as Johnson’s trills twinkled and sparkled. In contrast, Burns found a pastoral simplicity in ‘Herbstield’ (Autumn song), eschewing the intense vibrato of her earlier contributions and once again demonstrating assured breath-control and phrasing.

Schubert: The Complete Songs began in September 2015 and initial press releases suggested that this two-year series of over 40 recitals, in which more than 600 songs would be presented, would end in July 2017. Well, such was Schubert’s fecundity, as this recital attested, the series has been rolling on and only now, with Wednesday's two recitals, has reached its final destination. The songs performed in this programme date from 1812-27, with 18 of the 26 heard written during the first five years of this period, when Schubert was aged between 15 and 20.

As we listened to student exercises, song fragments and part-songs, I reflected on the question of ‘defining’ and categorising Schubert’s song oeuvre. John Reed, in The Schubert Song Companion (Manchester University Press, 1997) - an encyclopaedic guide to every song by Schubert for solo voice and piano, including different versions, unfinished songs and variants - highlights the problem: ‘How many songs did Schubert write? It is like asking: How many tall men are there in London? The answer depends on how you define your terms.’

Many of the programmes in this Wigmore Hall series have been curated by Johnson and here the pianist spoke warmly and informatively about the repertoire - at times offering a quasi-lecture-recital with musical illustration! But, as we heard examples of what Reed defines as ‘special’ and ‘borderline’ cases - unfinished songs, sketches and fragments (sometimes completed by others) - I felt that in their incompleteness some of these items perhaps did not present sufficient musical substance or interest to merit their inclusion; indeed, their fragmentary nature slightly disrupted the fluency that the programme generated elsewhere. Burns’ vocal line was largely unaccompanied in ‘Abend’ (Evening) and ‘Wolke und Quelle’ (The cloud and the stream), with just a few piano interjections and single-line counter-voicings, and if she seemed a little more uncertain in these ‘fragments’ then that is probably because the material itself is indefinite. They also highlighted, by its absence, how it is the relationship between voice and piano which is at the heart of the expressive and emotional impact of Schubert’s lieder.

Reed also comments on the issue of distinguishing between variants and new versions, but this was not a problem here as we were presented with first and second settings of ‘Wer nie sein Bron mit Tränen ass’, and it was interesting to reflect on the considerably more turbulent discourse and roaming harmonic exploration of Hintzsche’s ‘response’ to Keller’s first version.

Reed does not include Schubert’s duets, choral settings or part-songs in his compendium, but I was glad that Johnson had! For, the items which brought the singers together were some of the most affecting and engaging of the recital. In ‘Mignon under der Harfner’ (Mignon and the Harper) Keller interacted sensitively with Burns, who took the melodic lead. In ‘Szene aus Faust’ (Scene from Faust) and ‘Lodas Gespenst’ (Loda’s ghost) the singers made the recitative expressive and compelling, while Johnson authoritatively delineated the dramatic structure of these extended items.

‘Klage um Ali Bey’ (Lament for Ali Bey) combined two strands of the programme. Schubert preceded his parodic depiction of three sycophants’ plaintive outpourings of grief with a setting for solo voice, and here the two versions were elided, Burns being joined by Keller and Hintzsche for the terzet version. The singers obviously relished Matthias Claudius’s droll lampooning of the abuse of power as much as Schubert did, for during the interval their impromptu back-stage reprise echoed in the Hall, to the indulgent smiles of the appreciative audience.

Claire Seymour

Schubert: The Complete Songs

Harriet Burns (soprano), Ferdinand Keller (tenor), Harrison Hintzsche (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)

Schubert: ‘Entra l’uomo allor che nasce’ D33, ‘Serbate, O Dei custodi’ D35, ‘Misero pargoletto’ D42, ‘Szene aus Goethes Faust’ D126, ‘Die Mondnacht’ D238, ‘An die Sonne’ D272, ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt’ D325, ‘Lodas Gespenst’ D150, ‘Klage’ D436b, ‘Die Gestirne’ D444, ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass’ (‘Gesänge des Harfners III’) D478/2, ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass (Gesänge des Harfners III) D478/2b, ‘Klage um Ali Bey’ D496a, ‘Klage um Ali Bey’ D140, ‘Zufriedenheit’ D501, ‘Herbstlied’ D502, ‘Sehnsucht’ D516, ‘Memnon’ D541, ‘Abend’ (fragment) D645, ‘An mein Herz’ D860, ‘Im Jänner 1817 Tiefes Leid’ D876, ‘Mignon und der Harfner’ D877, ‘Wolke und Quelle’ (fragment, completed by Reinnhard van Hooricx) D896b, ‘Sie in jedem Liede (fragment, completed by Reinnhard van Hooricx) D896a, ‘Lebensmut (fragment) D937, ‘Glaube, Hoffnung und Liebe’ D955, ‘Die Taubenpost’ D965a.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 31st January 2018.

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