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Reviews

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Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Julius Drake (piano), Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elizabeth Watts

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

 

A similar pattern followed at Wigmore Hall, where Watts and pianist Julius Drake opened their recital with lieder by Richard Strauss and Alban Berg, subsequently complementing the late-Romantic richness with the lighter ‘salon’ songs of Cécile Chaminade. The latter seemed to introduce a more relaxed directness into Watts’ expression which was sustained in the lovely sequence of songs by Rachmaninov with closed the recital.

Watts performed the recital from memory - no unimpressive feat given the range of styles and languages she confidently explored. There’s no doubt that her soprano has ample power, fullness and shine and she launched impassionedly into the opening series of lieder by Richard Strauss, but I felt that she had a tendency to work too hard in these songs, striving too often for climactic expressive and dynamic peaks which might have blossomed with the natural effortlessness embodied in Strauss’ music - and which the generous Wigmore Hall acoustic would complement and carry. At times I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer presence of the sound, and the swelling volume occasionally - at the close of ‘Einerlei’ (Sameness) and ‘Rote Rosen’ (Red roses), for example - affected Watts’ intonation, as did the prevailing wide vibrato that she employed, particularly in the chromatic twists of ‘Winterweihe’ (Winter consecration)

Drake’s accompaniments were more modulated: the opening of the aforementioned ‘Einerlei’ was relaxed; the tension built convincingly through ‘Rote Rosen’ which concluded with the piano’s delicately fading dream-image; the dramatic narrative of ‘Cäcilie’ was persuasively shaped. Watts was most convincing when she softened the tone, as in ‘Meinen Kinde’ (To my child), which had a lovely distanced gentleness through which we could hear the subtle interplay of the piano’s inner voices. Similarly, the simplicity of ‘Die Nacht’ (The night) sensitively brought forth its mystery.

Of the 88 songs that Alban Berg composed, 70 remained unpublished during his lifetime. In 1928, however, he combined seven of his early songs - written 20 years before when he had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg - into a ‘cycle’ and published them in piano and orchestral versions. Bearing a dedication to Berg’s wife, ‘My Helene’, the Sieben frühe Lieder do not present a ‘narrative’ but do communicate a story of love through Straussian outpourings which give musical embodiment to textual intimations of ecstasy. They also show the influence of Debussy and, not surprisingly, Berg’s then teacher, in their exploratory harmonic digressions.

Watts was more self-composed in this sequence, singing with greater refinement and shaping the vocal lines with elegance and discernment. The dreamy piano sequences and elaborations which open ‘Nacht’ seemed to signal a change of tenor - and a more natural responsiveness to the texts: for example, there was a slight ‘pressing’ quality in the first stanza, as through the mists the valley was unveiled, building to the portentous, ‘Oh gib acht!’ (Take heed!). Watts created a convincing protagonist in ‘Schilflied’ (Reed song) through the firm shapeliness of the vocal line, while quietude at the start of ‘Die Nachtigall’ (The nightingale) built skilfully through the bird’s murmured wanderings, towards the final ecstatic proclamation, ‘Die Rosen aufgesprungen’ (the roses have sprung up). ‘Traumgekrönt’ (Crowned with dreams) floated wistfully, while ‘Im Zimmer’ (In the room) revealed the richness of Watts’ lower register, which Drake complemented with his darkly plummeting final chord. An intoxicating scent, a fin de siècle sumptuousness, billowed through the closing songs.

After the heady opulence of the first half of the recital, I was surprised, and delighted, by the natural and uncomplicated manner with which Watts inhabited the personae created by Cécile Chaminade in her charmingly innocent salon songs. Drake opened ‘Ronde d’amour’ (Love’s roundelay) in boisterous fashion and Watts responded with coy intimations which blossomed fulsomely at the close. The piano’s shimmering high chords embodied the once strong sheen of the silver ring that the lover of ‘L’anneau d’argent’ wishes would return to her dulled love-token. Here Watts’ really made a virtue of the voice’s reticence, a sweet but potent pause making us reflect on the image of eternal sleep when the silver ring may shine still, on a ‘bony finger’. After the persuasive rhetoric of ‘Ma première lettre’ (My first letter), ‘Attente’ (Expectation) glittered with the lover’s yearning anticipation, pushing forward through feverish visions, retreating fragilely with disillusionment. Each song, however ‘slight’, told a story. Drake’s lazy chords at the start of ‘La lune paresseuse’ (The idle moon) presaged an intense declaration of anticipated passion and fulfilment, the piano ringing with golden fervour at the close. Drake’s playful, precious sparkling in ‘Écrin’ (Jewel-case) - all ripples and rushes - captured the barely suppressed ecstasy of the over-excited girl who has been captivated by ‘mischievous eyes the colour of emeralds’ and ‘satin lips’, as Watts’ soprano flew upwards, light and free. ‘Villanelle’, which depicts a harvest dance, romped with rustic vibrancy, joy and exuberance. This was a truly lovely sequence of songs.

And there was more pleasure to come in the closing set of songs by Rachmaninov. While I am not qualified to judge the authenticity of Watts’ Russian pronunciation, she did seem to inhabit the spirit of these songs, communicating their sentiments with strength, directness and honesty. The tranquillity of ‘Sireni’ (Lilacs), with its tender piano oscillations, contrasted with the urgency of ‘Otryvok iz Musse’ (Fragment from Musset) in which the torments of a troubled, lonely heart sank into a sad pathos, ‘O loneliness, O poverty’, then raged forth in the piano’s desperate postlude. The tender rhapsody of ‘Zdes’ khorosho’ (Here it’s so fine) was transformed into ecstatic longing in ‘Ya zhdu tebya’ (I’ll wait for you). After the lively dialogue of ‘One olvechali’ (They answered), ‘Ostrovok’ (The isle) floated dreamily. The rapture which spills into uncontrollable desire in ‘Kakoe schast’ye’ (What happiness) brought the recital to a fittingly euphoric end.

Well, not quite end - we had two encores. In the first, Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, Drake delicately suffused an oriental perfume through Watts’ beautifully languorous melody, gently calming the lingering fervour of Rachmaninov. The second, ‘Someone’s been sending me Flowers’ by the American jazz singer-pianist Magrethe Blossom Dearie, lowered the temperature still further, and - though charmingly sung - swept aside the sincerity that had been established so powerfully in the second half of the recital.

Claire Seymour

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Julius Drake (piano)

Richard Strauss: ‘Einerlei’ Op.69 No.3, ‘Meinem Kinde’ Op.37 No.3, ‘Rote Rosen’, ‘Liebeshymnus’ Op.32 No.3, ‘Winterweihe’ Op.48 No.4, ‘Die Nacht’ Op.10 No.3, ‘Cäcilie’ Op.27 No.2; Berg: Sieben frühe Lieder; Cécile Chaminade: ‘Ronde d’amour’, ‘L’anneau d’argent’, ‘Ma première lettre’, ‘Attente’ (Au pays de Provence), ‘La lune paresseuse’, ‘Ecrin’, ‘Villanelle’; Rachmaninov: ‘Lilacs’ Op.21 No.5, ‘Fragment from Musset’ Op.21 No.6, ‘Dreams’ Op.38 No.5, ‘How fair this spot’ Op.21 No.7, ‘I wait for thee’ Op.14 No.1, ‘They answered’ Op.21 No.4, ‘The isle’ Op.14 No.2, ‘What happiness!’ Op.34 No.12.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 7th October 2019.

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