Friday 9 January 2009

Hanno Müller-Brachmann/András Schiff recital, 8 January 2009

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Willkommen und Abschied, D 767
Schubert – Versunken, D 715
Schubert – An Schwager Kronos, D 369
Schubert – Meeres Stille, D 216
Schubert – Prometheus, D 674
Mendelssohn – Variations sérieuses in D minor, op.54
Busoni – Fünf Goethe Lieder
Wolf – Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo
Brahms – Vier ernste Gesänge, op.121

Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
András Schiff (piano)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann certainly manages to attract excellent pianists. The previous recital in which I had heard him was in Berlin, with no less an ‘accompanist’ than Daniel Barenboim: part of an all-Busoni chamber and Lieder concert prefacing a spellbinding Staatsoper performance of Doktor Faust. Now we were treated to András Schiff, again offering an all-too-rare opportunity to hear Busoni, for me one of the highlights of a fine programme.

However, it was with Schubert that the recital began. There is no greater Schubert pianist alive than Schiff and he did not disappoint. From the galloping echoes of Erlkönig in the opening Willkommen und Abschied, we were in eminently musical hands. Müller-Brachmann proved equal to the challenges not only of Schubert’s line but also of Goethe’s verse, for all of the first half’s songs were settings of the German master. When ‘The moon gazed from a bank of cloud/mournfully through the haze,’ (Richard Stokes’s translation, both here and for the rest of the programme) there was just the right degree of hanging back upon the haze of ‘dem Duft’. Likewise, the pause after the revelation of a lovely face and the exclamation ‘ihr Götter!’ was perfectly judged, followed by a marvellously hushed ‘Ich hofft’es, ich verdient’ es nicht!’ (‘This I had hoped but never deserved!’). Schiff supplied a magically handled modulation midway through the final stanza, as he would for the line, ‘Da fühl ich mich von Herzengrund gesund’ (‘the depths of my heart are healed’) in the second song, Versunken. Those depths certainly sounded healed and this song was full of hope, fantasy, and expectation (I thought of the German Erwartung, with its prophetic glances towards Schoenberg) from both performers. An Schwager Kronos brought an urgency that was not confused with undue haste, as much from the piano as from the voice and indeed I heard distinct echoes or, perhaps better, foreshadowings of some of the piano sonatas in Schiff’s performance. The extraordinary Meeres Stille, its piano part restricted – for once, to Goethe’s approval – to thirty-two arpeggiated semibreve chords gave a paradoxical and/or dialectical sense both of suspended time in its quasi-recitative style, and of the utmost urgency. Prometheus¸ in whose words Goethe lays down an almost Young Hegelian gauntlet to Zeus/God, provided a splendid opportunity for Müller-Brachmann not to hector, but to display his dramatic skills. ‘Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres/Unter der Sonn’, als euch, Götter!’ (‘I know nothing more paltry/beneath the sun than you, gods!’) had the unanswerable force of ‘There it is; I have said it.’ And perhaps it also offered the invitation of ‘do your worst!’ The lines immediately following, in which the paltry nature of the gods’ majesty is delineated, looked forward to Wagner’s Ring in their subtle arioso – and in their content. Schiff’s piano part provided punctuation and formal construction, keeping this defiant monologue just within the bounds of song. Whatever Goethe may foolishly have believed, Schubert knew how to let words and ideas speak for themselves. So, on this evidence, did Müller-Brachmann and Schiff.

Upon my last hearing of Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, I had voiced my doubts concerning the strength of the work; this time, I happily recanted, for which thanks must go to a superior performance. I liked the interesting pre-sentiments of Bach-Busoni in the canonical first variation and indeed the Bachian end to the Thalberg ‘three-handed’ means in the thirteenth, a combination that put me in mind of Chopin. We heard echt-Mendelssohnian gracefulness in the fifth, yet never was it divorced from structural and dramatic meaning; likewise, the lightness of the ninth variation was never glib, expressing instead a powerfully contained passion. The turn to D major for the chorale brought an inevitable reminder of the Bach – or Bach-Busoni – Chaconne, even if ultimately it could not but lack Bach’s sublimity. Schiff’s performance overall impressed upon us that Mendelssohn’s classicism did not equate to mere gentility.

With Busoni, we returned to Goethe, to the five (out of nine) settings from the composer’s later years that were published in 1964 as Fünf Goethelieder. The Lied des Brander was suitably sardonic, followed by a fine performance of the Lied des Mephistopheles, which subsequently found its way into Doktor Faust. Schiff proved ever responsive, both to the score and to Müller-Brachmann, the piano part acquiring greater intensity – not to be confused with hurrying – as the vocalist span his false narrative. Once again, we heard echoes of Bach in the piano part of the Lied des Unmuts. Schlechter Trost unsettled with its nocturnal ghosts, without any vulgar melodramatics; the means were always musical, although Müller-Brachmann’s face, here as elsewhere, was wonderfully expressive in itself. In the final Zigeunerlied, the wolves’ refrain, ‘Wille wau wau wau!/Wille wo wo wo!/Wito hu!’ was rendered almost meaningful – as if we had gained a momentary insight into some arcane tongue – by the singer’s artistry. And in the final stanza, we again heard a touch of the operatic, albeit once again without overstepping the bounds of Lieder-singing.

The second half left Goethe behind but certainly did not embrace the frivolous, for the music was now unremittingly serious in tone. I did not feel that the performances in this section of the programme always matched the level of those in the first, but that was partly because the bar had been set so high. The first of Wolf’s Michelangelo settings, ‘Wohl denk’ ich oft,’ was all the more keenly felt for not trying so hard to be just that, although here – as elsewhere in the set – there were occasional intonational slips in Müller-Brachmann’s performance. The very words that open ‘Alles endet, was entstehet,’ put me in mind of Wagner’s Erda, and whilst Müller-Brachmann is obviously no contralto, his depth of tone on low notes such as those for ‘vergehet’ had a similarly other-worldly effect. The word ‘Leblos’ likewise was surely painted, devoid of meaningless earthly life, or rather existence. I was impressed by the almost Lisztian – despite Schiff’s oft-voiced disdain for his compatriot – hope voiced in both piano and vocal parts during the dream or vision of ‘Fühlt meine Seele,’ whilst the final lines sounded almost Tristan-esque in their longing.

With the opening of Brahms’s Four serious songs we were immediately plunged into that world of sounds and ideas voiced earlier in Ein deutsches Requiem and perhaps even faintly in the composer’s early organ works. (Arguably, we are taken back as far as Schütz.) The opening stanza of the first song, ‘Dann es gehet dem Menschen,’ had a powerful sense of all being preordained, everything being as it must be, both in the musical form and in its expression. I wondered whether a little more understatement would have benefited ‘Ich wandte mich,’ but there was an undoubted sense of existential tragedy to its conclusion. In ‘O Tod,’ however, I felt the lack of a darker voice, recalling a superlative Salzburg account of these songs by Thomas Quasthoff (admittedly with a lesser pianist than Schiff). I did not, moreover, feel that the final ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen’ quite captured the stentorian Pauline voice of the writer of the First Epistle to the Corinthians: a tall order, but a feat that Hans Hotter was certainly able to pull off. Despite my reservations, largely confined to the final set, this remained a distinguished recital, and the encores – more Schubert and that Brahms lullaby – provided a winning, heartfelt au revoir.