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Reviews

31 Dec 2019

Tara Erraught sings Loewe, Mahler and Hamilton Harty at Wigmore Hall

During those ‘in-between’ days following Christmas and before New Year, the capital’s cultural institutions continue to offer fare both festive and more formal.

Tara Erraught (mezzo-soprano) and James Baillieu (piano) at Wigmore Hall, 29th December 2019

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Tara Erraught

 

Wigmore Hall was silent for just three days this Christmas before first the Schumann Quartet and then pianist Jonathan Plowright reignited man’s search for ‘the elusiveness of music in its great abstraction’, as represented by Gerald Moira’s cupola above the Wigmore Hall platform. They were followed by Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught in this recital with pianist James Baillieu, in which lieder by Carl Loewe and Gustav Mahler were complemented by Irish songs, both traditional and composed by Hamilton Harty.

Erraught is a calm, self-assured and personable performer. Sadly, the audience at Wigmore Hall was not large but the Irish mezzo-soprano was obviously delighted to be performing at the Hall, and her warmth and ease were communicated throughout the recital. The piano lid was fully raised, and the instrument positioned towards the front of the platform. In the opening few songs, the balance between voice and piano was not always effective, especially when the vocal line lay low, but Erraught quickly got the measure of the acoustic and her clear, fresh mezzo and generally attentive diction communicated the poetic moods and situations effectively.

During his lifetime, Carl Loewe (1796-1869) built up a reputable career as a composer-singer, accompanying himself in public concerts, but his work is not well-known today in comparison with that of his fellow Romantic songsters. His oeuvre includes approximately 250 lieder and 150 art ballads, and Erraught and Baillieu offered us a welcome opportunity to hear eighteen of his songs; if one was inclined to compare them with more familiar settings of these texts by the likes of Schubert, Schumann et al, then Loewe held his ground well, Erraught and Baillieu bringing forth the diverse characters and colours within the sequence.

Of the four songs presented from Gesammelte Lieder, Ges änge, Romanzen und Balladen Op.9, ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’ (You who come from heaven) was the most engaging. Following segue from ‘Über allen Gipfein’ (Over every mountain-top), it effected a striking change of mood from a hushed calm to a more vibrant, Schumann-esque passion. Before that, Baillieu’s dark, ponderous ambience-setting opening to the ‘Szena from Faust’ had revealed his sensitivity to poetic-dramatic mood and nuance, while Erraught worked hard to convey the extremes of tenderness and pain which Goethe juxtaposes.

Five songs from Loewe’s Liederkreis nach Gedichten von Friedrich R ückert Op.62 followed. Again, the Irish mezzo-soprano communicated the spirit of the text effectively. In ‘Irrlichter’ (Will-o’-the-wisps), the voice hurried and scurried mischievously, sinisterly while the piano’s whispers raced and whirled, but it was in the slower more lyrical songs that Erraught seemed most comfortable. ‘Süsses Begräbnis’ (Loving burial) achieved a beautiful tranquillity, enhanced by the piano’s gentle chromaticisms and fluid oscillations. And, whereas on occasion there was a sense that Erraught was going through the motions of storytelling rather than truly living the protagonists’ dramas, in ‘O süsse Mutter’ (O mother dear), she seemed to engage more fully and freely with the sentiments and experience of the song’s speaker, thereby communicating feeling and situation more directly and persuasively.

The Loewe sequence closed with the composer’s Op.60 cycle of nine songs settings poems from Chamisso’s Frauenliebe, composed in 1836. ‘Seit ich ihn gesehn’ (Since first seeing him) and ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ shared a charming simplicity, though the latter blossomed more expansively in the final couplet, while ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ (He, the most wonderful of all) enabled Erraught to exploit her richly coloured lower voice and demonstrate her vocal agility. Baillieu’s characterisation captured the contradictory impulses of the soon-to-be-wed maiden in ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ (Help me, my sisters); again, Erraught displayed a fine sensitivity to the melodic phrasing in ‘Süsser Freund’ (Sweet friend). Best of all was ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ (Now you have caused me my first pain) in which the bereaved woman’s hurt was communicated with affecting poise, the words fully painted with vocal and harmonic colour as voice and piano octaves captured the extent and volatility of the singer’s grief. To conclude, Erraught exhibited a strong sense of structure and nuance as she took us through the repetitive melodic utterances of ‘Traum der eignen Tage’ (Dream of my own days), the voice carried forward by the piano’s fluency towards a convincing if sombre close when the voice was finally permitted to fall, in grave resolution: “Sei der Schmerz der Liebe/ Dann dein höchstes Gut.” (May love’s sorrow then be your dearest possession.)

We had been informed that three programmed songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn would not be performed, and so the second half of the recital opened with the composer’s Five R ückert Lieder. During the concert, Erraught reminded us that she has lived in Germany for several years (where since 2010 she has been a resident principal soloist with the Bayerische Staatsoper), and if I did not feel that she was truly ‘inside’ the German texts of the Loewe songs before the interval, now she seemed to find a more ‘natural groove’.

The mezzo-soprano found a nice balance between the intimacy of the songs and their expressive sophistication. After the playful ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ (Do not look into my songs!), in ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (I breathed a gentle fragrance) Erraught’s voiced did indeed seem ‘scented’, floating like the fragrance wafting from the spray of lime, the mood dreamy, the harmonic colour somewhat enigmatic. As the vocal line rose in ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am lost to the world), I wished that we had heard more of Erraught’s upper range, particularly as the bronzed sheen of the soaring phrases made such a striking contrast to the plummet of the final stanza, ‘Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,/ Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebeit’ (I am dead to the world’s tumult, and rest in a quiet realm). Baillieu’s postlude was beautiful, transporting us to the heaven in which the sing lives along, ‘In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied.’ (In my loving, in my song). ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (If you love for beauty) was wonderfully understated and exquisitely controlled, lofting vocal phrases left hanging in ambiguity. ‘Um Mitternacht’ (At midnight) was disturbing, troubled and lonely: though the protagonist finds some solace in his faith in God, the piano’s closing utterance offered little consolation.

Erraught introduced the Irish songs, explaining that while it had once been standard for schoolchildren to learn and sing the traditional songs of their native land, this is now less common and she herself has only a limited knowledge of the repertory. ‘Roísín Dubh’ was intense and imbued with passion and drama: I think I like my Irish folk-songs rather more in the style of Niamh Parsons, but there was no doubting the rhetorical power and heartfelt sentiment of Erraught’s rendition, which was deepened by the piano’s shuddering dark tremolos in the final verse. ‘The lark in the clear air’ was cleansing and pure; simply and assuredly beautiful singing.

Two songs by Hamilton Harty brought the recital to a close. ‘Sea Wrack’ has the poetic and musical depth of a genuine lieder, and Erraught and Baillieu made much of the linguistic pun ‘wrack’/’wreck’ - the former being both a type of seaweed and an archaic Irish word for a shipwreck - though they never lapsed into melodrama as the sea-weed collector’s old brown boat went down ‘upon the Moyle’. The burbling piano gestures of the closing lines were eerie: ‘The dark wrack,/ The sea wrack,/ The wrack may drift ashore.’

Erraught and Baillieu obviously enjoyed each other’s musical company, and the small but appreciative Wigmore Hall audience were undoubted delighted that they had shared in the evening’s music-making.

Claire Seymour

Tara Erraught (mezzo-soprano), James Baillieu (piano)

Carl Loewe : From Gesammelte Lieder, Gesänge, Romanzen und Balladem Op.9 - ‘Meine Ruh ist hin’, ‘Ach neige, du Schmerzensreiche’, Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’ (Wandrers Nachtlied) and ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist (Wandrers Nachtlied II)’; From Liederkreis nach Gedichten von Friedric Rückert Op.62 - ‘Irrlichter’, ‘Hinkende Jamben’, ‘Das Pfarrjüngferchen’, ‘Süsses Begräbnis’ and ‘O süsse Mutter’; Frauenliebe Op.60; Gustav Mahler: Five Rückert Lieder; Trad/Irish: ‘Róisín Dubh’ and ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’; Hamilton Harty: ‘Lane o' the Thrushes’, ‘Sea Wrack'

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 29th December 2019.

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