Das Rosenband, op.36 no.1
Rote Rosen, op.31 no.1
Five Songs, op.15
Leises Lied, op.39 no.1
Am Ufer, op.41 no.3
Wiegenlied, op.41 no.1
Lied an meinen Sohn, op.39 no.5
Krämerspiegel, op.66: four songs
Des Dichters Abendgang, op.47 no.2
Einerlei, op.69 no.3
Gefunden, op.56 no.1
Das Lied des Steinklopfers, op.49 no.4
Schlechtes Wetter, op.69 no.5
Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Roger Vignoles (piano)
A singular, though by no means the sole, virtue to this recital was the programming, for which I assume credit should be assigned to Roger Vignoles. The opportunity to hear such a fine selection of Strauss Lieder is far rarer than it should be. Quite why, I cannot understand, for every Straussian I know – and quite a few decided non- and even anti-Straussians – would aver that nowhere is the composer greater than in his songs. Indeed, a composer of rare discernment expressed the view to me a while ago that, whilst he would not especially mind never hearing a Strauss opera again, the songs were a different matter entirely, so perfect were many of them. (And no, I have not the slightest intention of divulging the composer’s identity.) Whilst I can appreciate and understand the sentiment, I cannot quite bring myself to share it, but then I have long been unhealthily drawn to the myriad of awkward questions thrown up by Strauss’s musical dramas. Nevertheless, a selection of Lieder such as this would be as powerful an incentive to jump ship as I can imagine. Not only thoughtfully selected, but intelligently apportioned between soprano and baritone, these songs ensured that one left the hall wishing for more, which is just as it should be. If only, though, we could have heard the entire cycle, rather than a mere four songs from Krämerspiegel…
Key to the recital’s success was the consistent quality of Vignoles’s contribution at the piano. An enduring disappointment for pianists is the lack of any mature contributions from Strauss to their repertoire. (A few early pieces are worth hearing now and then, but I could not honestly plead their case more strongly than that.) Yet if they turn their attention to the world of Lieder, things look very different, unsparing though Strauss can be in his demands upon the pianist. Sometimes those demands are positively orchestral, yet rarely, at least in a fine performance, are they impossible to fulfil. Vignoles resourcefully conveyed a sense of inebriation to the second song, Blauer Sommer, whose whole world full of roses prepared us nicely for the Rote Rosen of its successor. And he whipped up quite a storm in Winternacht and the last of the four Richard Dehmel settings, Lied an meinen Sohn, though here the almost absurd demands from the composer were not always surmounted. They were, however, preceded by Mendelssohnian deftness of touch in the ravishing Wiegenlied. It is interesting to note the difference in musical language announced by some of the Dehmel settings: now inevitably associated in many of our minds with Schoenberg, his verse elicited a surprisingly Schoenbergian, perhaps even Debusssyan, response in the harmony of Leises Lied.
Vignoles captured equally well the combination of Lisztian fantasy and evening glow in Des Dichters Abendgang. Moreover, the Viennese waltz charm heard in the Krämerspiegel songs was spot on, nowhere more so than in the Rosenkavalier reminiscences of Einst kam der Bock als Bote. (We also heard, before that, Es war einmal ein Bock, and after it, Es liebte einst ein Hase and O Schöpferschwarm, O Händlerkreis.) The opening lines, indeed are ‘Einst kam der Bock als Bote/Zum Rosenkavalier an’s Haus,’ and there is a subsequent sly reference to ‘Der Strauss sticht seine Dornen schnell.’ The thorns of this Strauss/bush prick both with elegance and eloquence – how typical of the composer – the skin of publishers now as then. And the presentiment of the Mondscheinmusik from Capriccio, with which O Schöpferschwarm closes, brought tears to my eyes: the supreme riposte to the bloodsucking shopkeepers of the title.
What of the voices? Elizabeth Watts was a late replacement for Dorothea Röschmann. She took a little while to settle, the words of the opening Der Rosenband differing more than once from those Klopstock wrote and Strauss set. Yet, by the end of her first group, the sense of excitement and skittishness in Begegnung was readily and winningly conveyed. Unevenness in the vocal line was cruelly exposed in Wiegenlied, likewise a few intonational difficulties in Es war einmal ein Bock. Nevertheless, the hint of cabaret in Watts’s delivery keenly pointed up the satire of the latter, and by the third Krämerspiegel setting, Es liebte ein Hase, there was a considerable soprano presence indeed. (And how can one resist the play on words: ‘Sein Breitkopf hart und härter war,’ Breitkopf und Härtel lampooned through a hare, a lover of unctuous phrases, whose fat head, Breitkopf, became more and more wooden?) The final Rosenkavalier hurrah of cake-baking in the Heine setting, Schlechtes Wetter, was skilfully, elegantly presented.
Christopher Maltman brought typically burnished tone to his contributions. Schubertian echoes were to be heard in the Michelangelo Madrigal from the op.15 songs, and again in the Dehmel Am Ufer, Wagner too. Richness and sincerity of tone were a hallmark of Maltman’s performance, combining to especially powerful effect in Lob des Leidens, another of the op.15 set, not least on account of both musicians’ expert shaping of Strauss’s climaxes. Life shone through anger in its successor, Aus den Liedern der Trauer, likewise in the bitterness of the penultimate Das Lied des Steinklopfers, surely as close to the Berg of Wozzeck as Strauss ever came – far more so than in the merely apparent similarities of Elektra. Here the insistence of genuine anger – the poor wretch who has yet to eat today, breaking stones for the Fatherland – truly chilled. Here as elsewhere, the supreme clarity of Maltman’s diction should be noted, and not only were his words clear, they always meant something. The mezza voce employed in Gefunden had a magic all of its own, however, transcending mere words in a fashion that would equally delight the listener and annoy the poet. So much the worse for Goethe, and so much the better for us.