Sunday 3 March 2013

Oelze/Aimard - Schumann, Debussy, and Messiaen, 1 March 2013

Wigmore Hall

Schumann – Frauenliebe und –leben
Debussy – Chansons de Bilitis
Messiaen – Harawi

Christiane Oelze (soprano)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

This is a difficult concert to review. Although no announcement was made, I can only assume that Christiane Oelze was suffering from a cold or some similar ailment. Her lower register was persistently gravelly and there were often signs of constriction above too; more than once it seemed as though she really wanted to let rip but could not. It would have been perfectly possible not to progress beyond those very real limitations; I can sympathise with anyone who could not. By the same token, if one could, there were, even if one were to leave aside the stellar contribution of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, performances of real intelligence and, when circumstances allowed, brilliant technique to savour.

This was a formidable programme, by any standards. Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben came first. Even at the best of times, it would be a challenging work, to put it mildly, with which to open a recital. I wondered to start with whether that was why Oelze sounded somewhat out of sorts: just taking a while to warm up. Certainly ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ relied on Aimard’s artistry to have its message put across. A considerably slower tempo than one often hears worked very well, Aimard’s deliberation suggesting that more was at stake than one might suspect. That the protagonist did not sound in the first flush of youth somehow made ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ all the more moving; both artists offered great acuity of response, the harmonic understanding voiced in the piano part second to none, likewise the voice-leading. Balance between the exultant and the imploring was finely judged in ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’. Once again, a broad tempo worked wonders in ‘Süßer Fruend, du blickest’. The piano’s quiet ecstasy sometimes contrasted a little too evidently with the strain on Oelze’s voice, but the performance as a whole remained touching. One could not help but share in the palpitations of ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust’. They were joyous and yet, quite rightly, disturbing, even deluded. One knew that and still wanted to join in the conspiracy of self-delusionThe final song, ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ took on an almost Wagnerian gravity; I was put in mind of Brünnhilde’s Annunciation of Death. One could readily put aside – or at least I could – vocal imperfection for such dramatic truth, especially in Aimard’s postlude.

Oelze displayed excellent French in Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis; Aimard’s excellence in this repertoire of course came as no surprise. The piano acted not only as driving force but as the primary conveyor of ‘atmosphere’, a loaded, all too vague word, yet somehow unavoidable when considering Debussy. Harmonies were relished and transformed into the stuff of near-drama. The third stanza of ‘La Chevelure’ sounded, as it ought, frankly sexual, and mostly through the progression of the piano part. There was a fine sense of story-telling from both performers in ‘Le Tombeau des Naïades’. Again, though, one had to close one’s ears to the difficulties in Oelze’s lower range.

Such, once we had passed beyond the opening ‘La ville qui dormait, toi,’ proved less of an impediment in Messiaen’s extraordinary song-cycle, Harawi, chant d’amour et de mort. Whatever the problems with some of Oelze’s performances, it was well worth having attended the recital simply to hear the work, and to hear it in such spirited performance. Again Aimard’s excellence might also have been taken for granted, though it ought not to have been. The piano was indeed given such a pounding that a string snapped at the end of ‘L’Escalier redit, gestes du soleil’. From the wonderfully hieratic approach of the opening song to the sense of time suspended in the great piano interlude of the final song, ‘Dans le noir’, Aimard’s performance was magnificently vivid, and needless to say unerringly precise. Faster-moving material seemed to work better for Oelze, ‘Bonjour toi, colombe verte,’ coming as quite a relief after her opening troubles. Here as elsewhere, one could not fail to be struck by Aimard’s understanding and communication of the music’s construction, metrically and harmonically. ‘Doundou Tchil’ – also, as many of you will be aware, the pseudonym of one of our most engaging musical bloggers – sounded skittish and threatening, before opening out into true Messieanesque ecstasy. This was very much a ‘danse des étoiles,’ as the text, Messiaen’s own, has it. I could not, however, for the life of me understand why some members of the audience laughed at the end. The complexity of the relationship between words and music in ‘Répétition planétaire’ was very well conveyed, likewise the generative capability and function of metre. Messiaen’s calls of ‘Ahi! Ahi!’ moreover seemed to take a step outside the entire æsthetic of Western music, not unlike those transcendental moments in The Magic Flute or The Cunning Little Vixen. Whereas Oelze had seemed constricted in the climaxes of Debussy, she managed properly to let rip in ‘Adieu’: quite something! Kinship with the earlier Poèmes pour Mi, always apparent, sounded stronger still in the bizarre ‘Syllabes’, commitment from both artists overriding enduring vocal difficulties. ‘Amour oiseau d’étoile’ seemed to capture the very essence of slow Messiaen, my mind drifting back to the final movement of L’Ascension. Not a flawless experience, then, but nevertheless an experience not readily to be forgotten.