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Performances

24 Dec 2018

Brenda Rae's superb debut at Wigmore Hall

My last visit of the year to Wigmore Hall also proved to be one of the best of 2018. American soprano Brenda Rae has been lauded for her superb performances in the lyric coloratura repertory, in the US and in Europe, and her interpretation of the title role in ENO’s 2016 production of Berg’s Lulu had the UK critics reaching for their superlatives.

Brenda Rae (soprano) and Jonathan Ware (piano) at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Brenda Rae

Photo courtesy of brendarae.com

 

In this recital, her debut at Wigmore Hall, Rae showed that her flawless technique, thoughtful artistry, careful exploration of the text and beautifully silky and sumptuous vocal tone can serve nineteenth-century lieder and mélodie just as satisfyingly.

My Opera Today colleague, James Sohre, praising Rae’s performance as Lucia at Opera Philadelphia in September, described the soprano as a ‘Donizettian’s dream’: ‘Her attractive lyric instrument has good bite and power, and she never needs to push to make her effects. Her intelligent delivery of the text invests each phrase with truth and empathy, and her unerring sense of line is a joy to hear. […] Her alluring tone is even from top to bottom, and her stage demeanor exudes star quality.’

Those qualities, together with masterful contouring and control, and discreet mastery by pianist Jonathan Ware, made Rae’s opening group of five songs by Richard Strauss musical magic. Her voice crept in, mysterious, mercurial, at the start of ‘Die Nacht’, conjuring Night herself who ‘steps from the woods, slips softly from the trees’ (‘Aus dem Walde tritt die Nacht, Aus dem Bäumen schleicht sie leise,’). Her sound production is effortless, and while here she held back, drawing the listener into Night’s journey as she extinguishes the lights of the world, the reserves of power were plainly evident. And, some of this golden force was freed in the sweeping lyricism of ‘Befreit’ (Released), in which Ware’s understated mellifluousness carried the broad phrases forward. The pianist was similarly inobtrusive but aware in ‘Muttertändelei’ (Mother-talk), imbuing the left-hand line with warmth to enrich the characterisation of the doting mother and deepen the poem’s irony.

The performers’ musical intelligence made coherent the complex melodic unfolding of ‘Schagende Herzen’ (Beating hearts), and Rae built compelling towards the climactic anticipation of fulfilment - ‘Oh wenn er bei mir nur, bei mir schon wär!’ (Ah! would he were with me, with me already!) - her soprano gleaming with a thrilling excitement and a potent charge of emotional energy. Strauss binds the song with onomatopoeic repetition, ‘Kling-klang schlug ihr das Herz’ (Pit-a-pat went her heart); here the palpitations at the close were spirit-soaring and roof-raising. The piano’s rippling accompaniment in the last of the group, ‘Frühlingsgedränge’ (Spring’s profusion), infused the song with a sense of restlessness and Rae’s vocal line was rich and urgent; one could only marvel at the ease with which she sculpted the broad lines, culminating in a silky pianissimo whisper which gleamed with a love of spring, and with love itself.

The subtlety and nuance that Ware had demonstrated through the Strauss group similarly brought insight and sensitivity to the sequence of songs by Debussy that followed the interval, where Rae likewise explored the French texts with great care and delicacy, wonderfully shaping the emotional shifts. Confidently shaping the opening of ‘Rondel chinois’, Rae relished the melismatic explorations, using vocal colour to draw the exotic images in the text. She roved high and low in ‘Coquetterie posthume’ (Posthumous flirtation), and the agile vocal acrobatics were anchored by the piano’s repeating rhythmic motif and jazzy syncopations.

The first of Debussy’s settings of ‘Clair de lune’ floated with utmost delicacy before ‘Pierrot’ brought us back down to earth with the rhythmic bump of popular song. It was in ‘Apparition’, however, that Rae and Ware were truly able to indulge in the quasi-operatic dimension of Debussy’s song writing, Rae singing with increasing, and magnetic, power and focus, and Ware highlighting the emotional peaks: ‘C’était le jour béni de ton premier baiser’ (It was the blessed day of your first kiss). The soprano’s smooth shaping of the final, quiet, arching line was mesmerising and Ware’s closing gesture, with left and right hands at the extremes of the piano’s compass, opened up a scented vista filled with the falling flowers dropped like snow by the fairy upon the sleeping child.

We had songs from earlier in the nineteenth-century too. The group of songs by Fanny Mendelssohn highlighted Rae’s relaxed lyricism, nowhere more so than in ‘Wanderlied’ (Song of travel), where Ware’s dancing triplets leapt lightly, and ‘Bergeslust’ (Mountain rapture) which shone with the lustre of heavenly light. ‘Wo kommst du her?’ was fresh and direct, leading my guest to remark that Rae is ‘a very human performer’. There was always, too, a strong sense of direction: Rae was quite restrained at the start of ‘Warum sind den die Rosen so blass?’ (Then why are all the roses so pale?), but from the withdrawing thread of sound a strong melody inevitably and compellingly emerged, while in ‘Die Furchtsame Träne’ (The timid tear) it was Ware’s focused bass line that propelled the music forward through the song’s tentative questionings.

In choosing ‘Wanderlied’ for the title of the first of the group heard here, Fanny Mendelssohn seems to have positioned her song within a certain type of lieder, and some commentators have noted an allusion to Schubert’s ‘Der Lindenbaum’ in one particular musical gesture. And, Rae and Ware ended their recital with six songs by Schubert in which it was the simplicity and economy of musical means, resulting in such cogent and commanding music, which was most striking, and which cleansed the palette after the preceding complexities. The crystalline transparency of ‘Von Ida’ was breath-taking, the voice diminishing magically at the close to a suspended thread of silver. Ware’s accompaniment to ‘Die verfehlte Stunde’ (The unsuccessful hour) was similarly lucid, while the piano’s introduction to ‘Du bist die Ruh’ was even and expressive, inviting in the lullaby, which Rae held back, so as not to wake the sleeping child, but which shimmered with love and, in the final verses, transcendence. Here was a huge emotional drama delineated by the simplest of musical and vocal means.

It was the group of five songs by Franz Liszt, though, that made the strongest impression on this listener. Despite the spare texture of ‘Es muss ein Wunderbares sein’ (How wondrous it must be), Rae used diverse vocal colours and timbres to progress with growing intensity and flowing sweetness, then allowed her soprano to withdraw at the close, leaving us with a consoling image of two souls united in love. ‘Bist du’ (Art thou) pulsed with a lovely confidence and joy, enriched by the piano’s harmonic delineations of the text’s listing of the analogies between the glories of the beloved and of Nature, and culminating in glistening vocal transfiguration: ‘Denn aus den Tiefen, den Tiefen des Seins/Kommst du!’ (for from the depths, the depths of being art thou!). There was a complementary quiet expectancy at the close of ‘Wie singt die Lerche schön’ (How beautifully the lark sings), as the glow of the morning sun promised to assuage the night’s pain and grief.

Two settings of Victor Hugo framed the group. Rae entered and departed ‘Comment, disaient-ils’ (How? They asked) with delicacy, emerging gently from the piano’s rustling and allowing the final improvisatory flights to slip into silence. ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ (Ah, while I sleep!) was more overtly dramatic, the tempestuous dreams conjured by the leaping piano bass and four-against-three rhythms gradually quelled, the darkness illuminated by the starry vision of the beloved’s countenance. Who knew that a finely graded crescendo and retreat could speak so tellingly and touchingly?

Liszt, who set text in five languages (German, French, English, Hungarian and Italian) described his songs as ‘orphaned’, perhaps in the hope that performers would bring them in from the cold margins of the repertory. Here they seemed to have found their perfect home.

Claire Seymour

Brenda Rae (soprano), Jonathan Ware (piano)

Richard Strauss - ‘Die Nacht Op.10 No.3, ‘Befreit’ Op.39 No.4, ‘Muttertändelei Op.43 No.2, ‘Schlagende Herzen’ Op.29 No.2, ‘Frühlingsgedränge’ Op.26 No.1; Fanny Mendelssohn - ‘Wanderlied’ Op.1 No.2, ‘Warum sind den die Rosen so blass’ Op.1 No.3, ‘Wo kommst du her?’, ‘Die furchtsame Träne’, ‘Bergeslust’ Op.10 No.5; Franz Liszt - ‘Comment, disaient-ils’ S276, ‘Es muss ein Wunderbares sein’ S314, ‘Bist du’ S277, ‘Wie singt die Lerche schön’ S312, ‘Oh! quand je dors’ S282; Claude Debussy - ‘Rondel chinois’, ‘Coquetterie posthume’, ‘Clair de lune’, ‘Pierrot’, ‘Apparition’; Franz Schubert - ‘Vergebliche Liebe’ D177, ‘Aus ‘Diego Manazares’ (Ilmerine)’ D458, ‘Von Ida’ D228, ‘Die verfehlte Stunde’ D409, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ D776, ‘Lied der Delphine’ D857 No.1.

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 23rd December 2018.

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