Monday, 7 January 2008

Strauss (and other) Lieder, Wigmore Hall, 6 January 2007

Wigmore Hall

Strauss: Ständchen; Seitdem dein Aug’; Nur mut!; Das Geheimnis; Sehnsucht; Liebeshymnus; O süsser Mai; Himmelsboten
Ivor Gurney: On Wenlock Edge; Ha’nacker Mill; The Salley Gardens; Snow; Hawk and Buckle
Strauss: Freundliche Vision; Ich schwebe; Kling!
Strauss: Amor; Einkehr; Mit deinen blauen Augen; Ein Obdach gegen Sturm; Rote Rosen; Die erwachter Rose; Die heiligen drei Könige
Frank Bridge: Adoration; Go not, happy day; Berceuse; Come to me in my dreams; O that it were so!
Strauss: Mein Herz ist stumm; Wozu noch, Mädchen; Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten

Rebecca Bottone (soprano)
Nathan Vale (tenor)
Paul Plummer (piano)

This was the last of three Wigmore Hall concerts devoted to the Lieder of Richard Strauss. Common to all was the pianist and deviser of the programmes, Paul Plummer. Each programme had included songs by other composers: from France in the first, Russia in the second, and England in the third. I assume that these works were chosen with the evening’s singers in mind, since there did not seem to be an obvious connection between Ivor Gurney and Frank Bridge on the one hand, and Strauss on the other. No matter: if there were no especial connection, nor did the combination jar unduly, and the English songs certainly showed off the vocal soloists to advantage.

Paul Plummer’s contribution as pianist merits enthusiastic praise. Strauss’s piano parts can be treacherous indeed, though one would hardly have known it, such was Plummer’s finely-judged virtuosity: never drawing attention to itself for attention’s sake, but never unduly reticent either. The young singers could hardly have wished for a better guide. The pearly tones required in the opening Ständchen set a standard which Plummer continued to meet. The piano bells in Liebeshymnus were set in beautiful counterpoint with the underlying chords; this is not at all easy to accomplish. Sehnsucht’s almost Lisztian interlude between the third and fourth stanza resolved perfectly into the Tristan-esque harmony that opens the fourth. Strauss’s musical antecedents were pointed up without scoring points; the composer was situated in a tradition that goes beyond what is conventionally considered to be at the heart of Lieder-writing. I greatly appreciated this, since there can occasionally be a tendency from Lieder enthusiasts to cordon off their province from other musical realms, not least from that of opera. Song and opera are different of course, rather as chamber and orchestral music are different, but there is a great deal of interplay, and a songwriter such as Strauss can have more in common with Wagner than might necessarily be the case with another songwriter. And Plummer passed an especially stern test when it came to that wonderful Heine setting, Die heiligen drei Könige. The piano part is actually a transcription, the orchestral song being the original. When I heard Roger Vignoles at Edinburgh in August, even he seemed unable to rid one of the impression of loss. With Plummer, the music was taken more soberly, less overtly pictorially: one would never have guessed its orchestral origin. The horns of Mein Herz ist stumm’s ‘Hörnerklang’ were beautifully characterised, again without being overdone and making one wish there were a real orchestra present.

Rebecca Bottone’s contribution was more problematical. One does not have to be Jessye Norman to sing Strauss – although it certainly helps. However, I am not at all convinced that Bottone’s voice was appropriate. It reminded me immediately of Reri Grist; my next thought was that this sounded very much the sort of chirpy, rather shrill voice conductors seem fond of allotting to roles such as Mozart’s Blonde. (I am not quite sure why, but that is a different matter.) When I consulted Bottone’s biography, sure and enough Blonde was given pride of place. The voice, in any case, lacked richness of tone and adequate differentiation of colours. Her bearing, visual as well as vocal, could be excessively winsome, especially in Amor, Strauss’s Cupid song. That said, she coped very well in that setting with Strauss’ cruel demands in terms of coloratura. There were some distinctly odd German vowel sounds, and she rarely sounded as if she were singing from ‘within’ the language. Tuning, moreover, was not always as precise as it might have been. On the other hand, Bottone sounded far more at home with the Bridge settings, both vocally and linguistically. Rather surprisingly, her voice appeared to acquire greater colour than it had in Strauss. There was a lovely ending to the Tennyson setting, Go not, happy day: spot on in intonation and with an apt smile in the voice to complement ‘Roses are her cheeks,/And a rose her mouth.’ If some of Bridge’s music, especially the piano part, reminded one a little too much of the salon, or the Palm Court, that is hardly the singer’s fault. Following the Bridge settings, her remaining Strauss song, Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten, appeared to benefit. There was more colour, although it still did not really seem her thing.

Nathan Vale was a considerable improvement. I am not entirely sure that his was the most suitable voice for Strauss either, but there was certainly less of a mismatch. His voice is rather an ‘English’ tenor, albeit without the mannerisms that so often infect that vocal type. There were times when Strauss’s writing appeared to sit uncomfortably high, but then Strauss’s tenor writing is notorious, and the odd faltering aside, Vale put up a good fight. He was good at posing questions, for instance ‘Du fragst mich, Mädchen, was flüsternd der West/Vertraue den Blütenglocken?’ (Das Geheimnis). He imparted an aptly Schubertian chill to the openings of Sehnsucht and Mein Herz ist stumm. When the opening line of the latter song return at the end, there was truly something of the sepulchre or Winterreise to the revisiting. Die erwachter Rose brought a real sense of erwachen (awakening) as Friedrich von Sallet’s verse told of the nightingale’s sweet song and the bud blossoming into a rose. At times, I thought Vale could have sung out more freely. When he did, as in Die heiligen drei Könige, the results impressed. However, if the disparity were less great, he too sounded more at home in the English settings, in his case those by Gurney. Indeed, here he sang as if to the manor born. (It transpires that he and Plummer have recently recorded a disc of English song.) The poignancy of fading away in Edward Thomas setting, Snow, was rather special. And there was plenty of vigour to Robert Graves’s Hawk and Buckle. Indeed, this combination of youthful vigour and imploring, though never mawkish vulnerability seemed just right for the music of one whose career was so cruelly cut short by the First World War.

So if not always an ideal appreciation of Strauss, there was much to enjoy here. Many of these songs are not often encountered, which gave the recital extra value. Vale’s voice is still very young, and will doubtless open out more, but he was far from unequal to many of Strauss’s demands. Plummer was excellent, though I am not convinced that his programming matches his pianism. The encores, a group of five ‘very small’ (mercifully) songs by Sterndale Bennett were ‘humorous’ though not – at least to this listener – amusing. They seemed an odd conclusion to this recital, but would surely have seemed odder still had one attended the series of three Strauss recitals.

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