Wednesday 16 December 2015

Meier/Breinl - Mahler and Wagner, 15 December 2015

Wigmore Hall

Mahler – Kindertotenlieder
Wagner – Wesendonck-Lieder
Mahler – Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Rheinlegendchen’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’; ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder

Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano)
Joseph Breinl (piano)

This is perhaps a difficult easy recital to write about. With the best will in the world – and I think I probably have that when it comes to Waltraud Meier – not everything was entirely successful; or, perhaps better, there was little that approached the perfection one might expect from some artists. It is, I think, a little too easy to fall back on clichés concerning distinctions between ‘opera singers’ and Lieder singers. There are no absolute boundaries between artists; nor are there between genres. Indeed, there can be a certain snobbery when it comes to Lieder-singing, just as there can be when it comes to chamber music vis-à-vis orchestral music. Perhaps it is justified, sometimes at least; it is difficult to dispute that the general standard of works in the one is higher than in the other. Imagine a song repertoire that was mostly devoted to the likes of Verdi and Donizetti! In any case, that was not what we heard here, Mahler and, above all, Wagner being unsurprising territory for Meier.

Kindertotenlieder received an interesting performance. Intonation was not always spot on. I think that element of colouring – a deliberate flatness? – was, like other such elements, sometimes an interpretative decision, quite striking; however, I am not convinced that it always was. Perhaps it was not the best work with which to have opened a recital; too often, Mahler’s vocal lines sounded dangerously exposed. Meier treated the songs, and here I realise that I am already falling back on the ‘operatic’ cliché, more as a unified drama than one generally hears. One might object that that is not what these songs ‘are’ and I suppose they are not, but it does no harm to hear different approaches. Certain phrase endings in particular had more musical connotations, sounding very much in the line of the Wagner heroines she has portrayed – and also, those one might have wished her to portray: Brünnhilde as well as Isolde.

Joseph Breinl’s piano playing sounded spare, more contrapuntal than harmonic in emphasis. That, however, is how Mahler tends to sound on the piano. I am not convinced that Mahler’s songs, where orchestral versions exist, are best served by the piano; regardless of what actually came first, the ‘accompaniments’ sound as if conceived with something close to Klangfarbenmelodie in mind; one hears very much where Schoenberg and, perhaps still more so, Webern were coming from. But there is interest in hearing how different the harmonies sound shorn of their orchestral colour, and such comments are in no way meant as adverse criticism of Breinl’s excellent performances in any of the Mahler songs.

In the second half, Meier seemed considerably more at ease with the composer. There was sardonicism and there was archly ‘staged’ flirtation in the Wunderhorn songs; these are songs of alienation, just as the Rückert-Lieder are, and that is how they sounded. The terrible stillness of ‘Um Mitternacht’ can rarely have sounded so threateningly Nietzschean. Both artists ensured that each of these songs had its own character and, again, the sense of some overarching narrative, even if it were one impossible to put into words, was strong. It was more akin to a cantata, almost Waltraute-like – I always think of that Götterdämmerung scene in such terms – than one generally hears, or would generally wish to, but again, there was much to be gleaned from such a perspective.

For all that is often said about Wagner as a pianist, his later works involving piano are far from negligible. His Sonata for Mathilde Wesendonck is far too often ignorantly dismissed; it is a fascinating work, which deserves many more hearings. The songs which bear her name are rightly esteemed, of course; here what struck me, both intrinsically and in performance, was how genuinely song-like they are, their overt operatic connections notwithstanding. Breinl’s tone was softer, more conciliatory: more ‘Romantic’, I should say. Meier offered a portrayal of wisdom that seemed almost to be recalling youthful folly: heard more from the standpoint of Isolde at her Transfiguration rather than in the second act. Echoes and indeed presentiments of Isolde are impossible to banish here, but this seemed to be more than that. Again, there was a starkly ‘dramatic’ aspect to the performance which I should not always wish to hear, but which I was glad to have heard on this occasion.

The encores were worth the price of admission alone. About them I had no reservations whatsoever. First, we heard an urgent, almost overwhelming performance – from both artists – of Brahms’s Von ewiger Liebe. Then Meier astonished with the most terrifying Erlkönig I have ever heard and, most likely, shall ever hear. In her narrative and characterising element, this was in the very best sense an operatic scena, its terror heightened of course by Breinl’s command of that cruel piano part. Meier’s searing performance, though, was something I doubt I shall ever forget. So perhaps I was wrong to start by suggesting that this was a difficult recital to write about; one simply needed to take it on its own terms. Those terms often provided their own vindication, regardless of what might be considered ‘correct’.