Archive for the ‘Art Song’ category

Jonathan Biss, Mark Padmore, and friends: Schumann Under the Influence [October 4 and 6, 2012 at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco]

October 10, 2012

Much as I enjoyed hearing Mark Padmore at the Schwarzenberg Schubertiad this past June, I might not have made the effort to schedule a visit to San Francisco this past weekend in part to hear them, had I not noticed that these two concerts (with slightly different performers) will be given again this week at Wigmore Hall and later this month in Amsterdam.  In June I had been highly impressed by Padmore’s performance of the Heine-Lieder from Schubert’s Schwanengesang with pianist Paul Lewis, less so by his performance of the Beethoven songs on their program, including the cycle An die ferne Geliebte, both of which would appear on one or the other of these two programs.  But San Francisco is so much easier for me to visit than London, and I had such warm memories of the entire Schwarzenberg experience, that Mark Padmore felt rather like family as well, so I couldn’t resist the chance to hear these performers in advance of their appearances in Europe.

These performances are two in a series of four that have been “curated” by the young pianist Jonathan Biss who, depending upon which venue is telling the story, was invited by either San Francisco Performances or Wigmore Hall (or perhaps both, but no one is saying that) to dream up a series of recitals and concerts on any theme he liked.  For reasons that he eloquently explains in “A Pianist Under the Influence,” an essay of about 35 pages in a Kindle edition available from Amazon, he chose to build the series around Robert Schumann, including composers who influenced him and those who are influenced by him.  Essentially, Biss feels deeply connected with Schumann as a very vulnerable man and musician and in exploring Schumann’s music, he feels he is exploring his own personal depths.   Sitting in the second row one evening and the fourth row the other evening, I found this connection to be readily apparent, and it was easy to be drawn into it myself.

In a Skype interview before the first recital, Padmore commented that the recital that opened the series here (and will come second in London) had not been selling well because it was neither a piano recital (although it featured a lovely, heartfelt performance of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major) nor a vocal recital (since the only vocal piece was An die ferne Geliebte, which is quoted in the Fantasie).  Indeed, the audience in San Francisco was not as large as it could/should have been, and the anecdotal evidence of an overheard conversation in the restaurant beforehand suggested that the presence of the principal clarinetist from the San Francisco Symphony in the chamber pieces of the first half was as much of a draw as anything.  (The chamber ensemble will have different members in Europe).  So, while Saturday’s recital, which featured a familiar pairing of Schumann’s  Dichterliebe  and Schubert’s  Heine Lieder from Schwanengesang, but also a solo piano performance of Schumann’s late Gesänge der Frühe and the rather unexpected Sieben Frühe Lieder of Alban Berg, can be approached as a fairly standard Lieder recital, the other is best viewed as an evening in which Robert Schumann is truly at the center, and the performers are all at the service of his music or of music with a clear connection to him.

As a singer, I don’t feel qualified to give an in-depth review of the chamber pieces in the first half of the first recital, other than to say that Märchenerzählungen, Op. 132, is an absolutely lovely piece of music from late in Schumann’s life.  The demons were closing in upon him, but I heard little if any of that in the four movements of this piece, performed by Biss on the piano with Carey Bell on the clarinet and Scott St. John on viola.  The same ensemble filled out the first half with Gyorgy Kurtág’s Hommage à Robert Schumann, a set of nervous pieces that sounded like they were in fact depicting the psychological subtext underneath the sweetness of that late work by Schumann, ending with a very soft tap upon a bass drum by the clarinetist.  On the whole, the mix of instrumental colors was quite satisfying, and the ensemble sounded good to me.

The second half featured Schumann’s familiar Fantasie in C Major, opus 17, written early in Schumann’s career when he was finding his way in a musical world still dominated by the titanic figure of Beethoven. Schumann had been excited by the idea of creating a great physical monument to Beethoven but the monument eventually took the form of this piano piece, with its thematic quote from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte.  It was this cycle, peformed by Biss and Mark Padmore, that opened the second half.  Padmore’s signature style of vocal production features pure tones with limited vibrato, and if anything at all is interfering with this production, the high notes or forte passages may sound rough or constrained, as they had to me in some of the Beethoven songs he sang in Schwarzenberg.  But for whatever reason (increased familiarity with the cycle, better vocal health, a more relaxed atmosphere in the San Francisco audience, a special connection with the pianist), he absolutely nailed the piece this time.   His voice moved perfectly smoothly through the registers and dynamic changes, and his gestures and facial expressions were alive but not tense, always clearly connected to the music and words.  Because the vocal lines and words are so simple in all six songs, much of the interest in the piece comes from the details in the piano line, and Biss’s accompaniment added what needed to be added without overpowering the vocal line.

The recital that had begun with three musicians on stage and diminished to two, now closed with Jonathan Biss alone with the Steinway, channeling Florestan and Eusebius (Schumann’s names for two aspects of his own psyche) as he deeply felt Schumann’s coming to terms with the greatness of Beethoven.  The emotion was quite evident as he removed his glasses to wipe his eyes after finishing the first movement, then went on to execute the famously difficult jumps in the second movement, closing with the serenity and beauty of the final movement, to much appreciative applause.

The second recital (which will be the first performed at Wigmore Hall) consisted entirely of songs (although the first set, Gesänge der Fruhe, Opus 133, were songs in name only, since they are solo piano pieces).  As with the first recital, the program began with a very late piece whose loveliness belies the inner torment of Schumann’s life at the time.  They are dedicated “To Diotima”, the platonically beloved subject of some of the poems of another troubled soul, Friedrich Hölderlin.  There is plenty of emotion in these pieces (which, according to Schumann, “depict the emotions on the approach and advance of morning”) which was fully expressed in Biss’s sensitive performance.  Biss finds the harmonics in this piece to foreshadow those of Berg, so he chose to pair it with the latter’s Sieben Frühe Lieder, which will be performed in Europe by soprano Camilla Tilling, but, for economic reasons, was performed by Padmore in San Francisco.  This was the only piece on either program that Padmore did not perform entirely from memory (presumably because he does not expect this set, which is usually performed by a female singer, to become part of his permanent repertoire), but his use of the score did not interfere with his connection to the music or to the audience.  Remaining true to his vocal style, he sang these pieces with pure tones that moved smoothly through the registers, with fine diction and phrasing.  While I could fault nothing in his performance, my aesthetic preference would be for more overtones and a wider variety of tonal color in this music.  However, for one of my companions, this piece was the highlight of the evening, and I am grateful to Padmore for taking on the risk of singing this piece and mastering it as he did.

Biss’s programming concept called for the intermission to occur at this point, but it had been announced that the intermission would in fact follow the next set, which was the Heine-Lieder from Schubert’s  Schwanengesang. I am guessing that this change was made to allow Padmore a break where he most needed it, since, as in Schwarzenberg, Padmore’s performance of these six songs was highly dramatic, introducing a good deal more vibrato into the forte passages than I had heard at any other point in either the San Francisco or Schwarzenberg programs, beginning with the tempest of “Der Atlas” and concluding with a very spooky “Der Doppelgänger”.

After the intermission, Biss and Padmore returned to present a thoughtful and expressive Dichterliebe.  Again, Padmore’s connection with the emotions and music was complete and authentic.  Did I understand the cycle any better afterward than I had before?  Not really, but, after studying it and hearing numerous performances of it, I still find it deliberately open-ended and tantalizingly ambiguous, as is so much of Heine’s poetry.  For me, the cycle is about the journey through the “poet’s love”, bewildering, frustrating, stimulating, challenging, and enlivening, and the performers caught all of these.  My one concern was that in some places Padmore’s lower register notes, while fully supported and well produced, were just audible above the piano from where I was sitting in the fourth row.  This may have just been slight mismatch between a singer with whose normal voice production is light and pure, and a solo pianist with a fully open Steinway grand at his command as he channeled a Romantic composer.  For the most part, the collaboration between Biss and the other artists, in particular Padmore, was rich and sensitive.  As would be expected, he brought much to the all-important postludes of the songs, particularly in the manic “Das ist ein Flöten”, and taking a long, expressive pause between the dramatic ending of the sung section of “Die alten, bösen Lieder” and the harmonic shift that leads into the reprise of the achingly tender postlude to “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen” that closes the cycle, during which Padmore stood very still, his eyes seeming to look into the casket at the poet’s buried loves.  As the two artists embraced at the conclusion of the music, both sets of eyes appeared to be moist, and I had the sense that we in the audience were not the only ones who had been moved by it.

After several enthusiastic curtain calls, the artists returned to cheer us up with an encore that, as Padmore announced from the stage, is an “almost happy song” from Schumann and Heine: “Die Lotosblume”, which was as tenderly and smoothly executed as the Dichterliebe songs had been.

A microsite for the Schumann Under the Influence series (including performance dates at various venues) can be found at http://www.jonathanbiss.com/schumann/.

Advertisements

Two Winterreises: Gerald Finley/Julius Drake and Florian Boesch/Malcolm Martineau

July 20, 2012

Gerald Finley and Julius Drake, June 22, 2012, Angelika-Kauffmann-Saal, Schwarzenberg, Austria

Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau, June 24, 2012, Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland

Some years ago, I participated in a class for singers and pianists  where we studied Schubert’s great song cycle Winterreise, performing among us the entire cycle one afternoon (my four songs were “Auf dem Flusse”, “Frühlingstraum”, “Letzte Hoffnung”, and “Der Leiermann”).  After the performance, an audience member commented on how challenging it had been to sit through a set of songs that were “all about being depressed”.  While I could see her point, one of my discoveries during the course of the class had been just how varied the songs actually are as the protagonist makes the physical and emotional journey that ends so ambiguously.  Sadness, anger, bitterness, numbness, hope, despair, loneliness, and misanthropic resentment are only some of the emotions that can find expression in these 24 songs, and it is up to the performing artists to make decisions about what path the journey will take.   The juxtaposition of the Schwarzenberg Schubertiade with the Zürich Festspiele allowed us to hear two very different interpretations within 48 hours of each other, as our tour’s final Schubertiade recital featured Gerald Finley and Julius Drake in their second ever performance of the cycle (the first had taken place a few days earlier in Brussels, and their third would follow shortly in London).  After the tour returned to London the next day, we remained in Zürich for two days, allowing us to catch the rare Hindemith opera Mathis der Maler  the first evening, and then to hear Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau’s interpretation of Winterreise.

It took me a while to settle in to Finley and Drake’s performance, as Drake’s highly percussive approach to the accompaniment seemed at odds with Finley’s beautifully warm, legato vocal line with occasional hollow-sounding pianissimos, and highly internalized dramatic presentation (folded hands, frequently  closed eyes, a very sad facial experession  at the end of “Gute Nacht”).  I think now that the piano represented a suppressed emotional turmoil as the singer’s visible emotions essentially ranged from sad to sadder.  The drama picked up at the end of “Auf dem Flusse”, where the persona dares to look beneath his own frozen exterior to see a raging torrent of emotion.  But the torrent flowed remarkably evenly.  Dynamic changes, and movements through the registers were always smooth, admirably realizing the ideals of classical vocal production.  But I confess I was having some trouble getting a real sense of the persona’s attitude.

There are several songs where there are opportunities to move outside the “sad  to sadder” orbit; “Frühlingstraum” offers a range of attitudes as it moves between the happiness of dream and the bleakness of reality, with a sense that the forces of nature mock the dreamer—does he join in the self-mockery, or recoil from it?  Likewise, “Im Dorfe” replays the “Gute Nacht” scene of the wanderer hearing snarling dogs as he passes through a town where others are sleeping—is he bitter or sardonic about the dreams, or simply alienated from them?  In both cases, Finley’s choice appeared to remain within the “sad and alone” approach, or, I should say, expressed but did not emphasize the mood shifts inherent in the music.  They also played up some mood shifts between songs by singing some without pause: the rage of “Der stürmische Morgen” giving way immediately to the wistfulness of “Tauschung”, and the chorale-like beauty with which the persona expresses his final loss of faith in “Die Nebensonnen” leading directly into the spare bleakness of “Der Leiermann”.

After a series of recitals where the singers had kept copies of the texts at hand, it was a welcome change that Finley performed Winterreise resolutely from memory.  He also took an interesting approach to the problem of preserving his voice and energy through a program that runs well over an hour without a break.  At the end of the twelfth song, “Einsamkeit”, he retreated behind the acoustical background on the stage (where we had seen a stagehand deposit a bottle of water before the program started), while Drake remained at the piano for a minute or two.   As soon as Finley re-emerged, Drake began the energetic opening of “Die Post” as Finley walked back to his station beside the piano.

Having heard this very beautiful performance that left me feeling not quite as moved as I had hoped to be, I decided to take the opportunity offered by the Zürich Festspiele to hear Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau approach the same song cycle two nights later.  From Boesch’s recital with Roger Vignoles in Vancouver in February, I knew that there was likely to be more emphasis on the drama than concern about preserving the beauty of the music.  And indeed this was the case.  The notes I scribbled on the Finley program were generally comments on beautifully executed lines; here many of my notes delineated emotions: nostalgic, tender, wistful (all within “Gute Nacht”), from “very angry” to “seething” in “Die Wetterfahne”.  “Der Lindenbaum” began as a matter-of-fact description of the tree by the well, and his youthful dreams beside it.  After a longer-than-usual pause, the piano took up the “rustling leaves” theme in the minor key, and, in Boesch’s voice, the tree’s invitation to “come here to me” sounded positively eerie.  By the time we had heard in close succession “Wasserflut” and “Auf dem Flusse”, with mood shifts from quiet to loudly raging, I was looking at Boesch’s closely cropped head and getting images of the emotionally disturbed loners in our society who pick up a gun and kill family members and then themselves.  But there were still moments of great beauty: the legato declamation of “Irrlicht”,  the deep tenderness when he asks whether nature is mocking him in “Frühlingstraum”,  the way in which he made the skip up on “Wein” at  the end of “Letzte Hoffnung” sound like a sob, the wistfulness  in describing the dreaming villagers in “Im Dorfe”. I have to say that, throughout the performance, there was never a moment when I wasn’t wondering what the artists would do next.  Martineau threw in some surprises of his own:  eschewing the invitation to create a magic rustling of leaves in the opening of “Der Lindenbaum”, pausing in some unusual places to underscore a change of mood or to let something sink in, rolling the piano fiercely at the end of “Frühlingstraum.”

As the memory of the lost love was left behind and we journeyed further into bleak alienation, the voice became softer, “Das Wirtshaus” very peaceful, followed by a highly internal moment when Boesch stared at the floor, facing his decision to keep wandering, seeking energy to do so in the denial-fueled bravado of “Mut”, culminating in a very bitter delivery of the unsatisfying statement that “if there is no God on earth, then we must be gods ourselves.”  “Die Nebensonnen” was a dynamic descent from a mezzo-forte remembrance of staring at the three suns to a very soft lament that two of them have set, continuing without break into a dynamically static delivery of “Der Leiermann”, the expression coming from a slight tenuto on the highest pitches of the verses, broken only by a loud penultimate piano line.

The strong collaboration between the singer and pianist was affirmed by their embrace following the pause of silence before the applause, as well as by Boesch’s vigorous pointing toward Martineau as they took their bows on the fourth curtain call.  Afterward, when the artists emerged to sign copies of their Winterreise CD, Boesch was insistent that he not start without Martineau, who had drifted off to talk to someone he knew from the audience.   I have held off on listening to the copy of the CD that I bought that evening so that I would be reviewing the actual performance I saw, rather than something reconstructed from the CD, which, as I gather from an online review, was closely miked and allowed for some very intimate singing that might not carry in a hall.  If that is the case, the artists had certainly adjusted their performance to suit the Tonhalle’s Kleiner Saal, as there was only one place in “Rast” where a few soft notes in a rising vocal phrase were lost in the piano.  I am looking forward now to hearing the studio version.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees in recital at Schwarzenberg, Austria, June 21, 2012

July 10, 2012

This recital was really fun to attend.  I have admired a number of Prégardien’s recordings, as well as a DVD of this team performing Die Schöne Müllerin, but I had never attended a live performance, so I expected to enjoy this fourth vocal recital on our Schubertiade tour, and I was not disappointed.  The program was a collection of Goethe settings, the first half all by Schubert, and the second half comprising songs by Beethoven, Loewe, Liszt, Wolf, and Grieg with a return to Schubert at the end for “Wanderers Nachtlied II”.

The start of a Schubertiade program is signaled when a gentleman in a suit comes onto the stage to remove the sign reminding us to turn off our cell phones, after gesturing with it to make sure it has caught our attention.  Then the artists take the stage to the applause of the audience.  Nothing unusual there, and I had grown used to the rhythm of this ritual after seeing Mark Padmore, Christian Gerhaher and Bernarda Fink enter in their individual artist personae.  But there was a difference with Prégardien, whose  commanding presence, trimly tailored suit and purposeful energy in taking the stage felt like that of CEO about to give a keynote address, accompanied by the shorter, more fanciful (but equally significant) figure of Michael Gees in Romantic topcoat, spectacles, and greying ponytail.

Prégardien has been performing for several decades, and his voice has lost a little of its youthful glow, but he certainly knows how to present a song dramatically.  While his gestures were not specific, they betrayed no tension, were clearly related to the music and always reinforced the song rather than detracting from it.  Meanwhile, Gees at the piano was a show in himself, playing beautifully articulated figures often with his head cocked to one side, his mouth open, and his eyes perhaps even closed, as if he were literally playing this music, with full sensitivity and artistry, in his sleep (or at least in a rhapsodic dream).   His very articulated accompaniment to “Rastlose Liebe”, the restless effect of coach wheels in “An Schwager Kronos”, continued at a slower (wandering?) pace in “An die Türen will ich schleichen”, gave way to the gentleness of Schubert’s first setting of “An den Mond”.  Meanwhile, Prégardien was holding his own, with a technique that kept the vowels inside his mouth more than I would have thought could be done without constraining the tone (although it got a bit stuck in a few places).  “Ganymed” was particularly satisfying, with Prégardien always spot on the pitches and rhythms, radiating an air of joyous expectation during the piano interludes.

The second half of the program paralleled the first to some degree, opening with Liszt’s setting of “Freudvoll und Leidvoll” and  later we heard his second version of “Wanderers Nachtlied I”, which had  a beseeching quality written into the final “komm, ach komm” that had been missing in the artists’ performance of the Schubert version.  Schubert’s “Ganymed” from the first half was balanced by Wolf’s equally fine setting, Wolf being further represented by “Phänomen” and “Blumengruß”.  A particularly lovely addition was Grieg’s  “Zur Rosenzeit”, whose nostalgic waltztime melody was beautifully brought out by Gees.  (This haunting song, from the Opus 48 set of German lieder, may figure in a recital I’m considering, to be entitled “What I did on my Summer Vacation”).  And I was particularly gratified to hear two songs by Carl Loewe, including the attractive “Lynceus, der Türmer” from Faust, Part II, and Loewe’s dramatic ballad setting of “Erlkönig”, which Richard Wigmore had discussed in the tour lecture beforehand, telling us that Wagner, among others, preferred Loewe’s setting to that of Schubert.  Loewe is best known today for his dramatic ballads, which he himself would perform self-accompanied, acting out the different characters, to produce “one-man mini-operas”.  This text by Goethe was admirably suited to this treatment, as Prégardien demonstrated in his presentation of the song.

As had been the case with Christian Gerhaher and Bernarda Fink, Prégardien had a music stand at his side, with copies of the texts, which he was able to consult occasionally without breaking the dramatic concentration.  The necessity for this aid was shown in the first of the three encores, Philine’s  “Singet nicht in Trauertone” from Schumann’s collection of Wilhelm Meister lieder.  The encores had apparently not been included on the stand, because Prégardien did indeed forget the words to one of the verses, to which Gees cheerfully prompted him from the piano and the song continued without interruption.  This illustration of the respectful and highly comfortable relationship between Prégardien and Gees, and indeed between the artists and  the Schubertiade audiences,  echoed a similar moment near the end of the first half of the program, where Gees accidentally turned two pages of music and launched into “Jägers Abendlied” when Prégardien was expecting to sing “Die Liebe”.   Prégardien turned to him with a quizzical expression, Gees stopped playing, and the omission was rectified.  It’s possible that there was some further unexplained confusion, as, after the final song listed on the program, Prégardien turned to the pianist again as if to ask “isn’t there another song”, and Gees gestured in the negative, indicating that the first half was over.

Unfazed by the slipup on “Singet nicht”, the artists presented two more encores.  The first of these was Liszt’s setting of “Es war ein König in Thule”, which would almost certainly have annoyed Goethe, who preferred more folklike settings of his poetry to begin with, and would especially have disliked such a dramatic version of Gretchen’s folk song from Faust.  The final encore was begun after a curtain call at which the pianist carried no music, creating a bit of a surprise when he sat down to play—so  the opening measures of Schubert’s  “Erlkönig”, were at once startling and highly logical.  Once again Prégardien created the three characters, the Elf King being delineated by Schubert’s switch into major key, as contrasted with Loewe’s use of a nursery-rhyme-inspired melody to speak the boy’s language.  And Gees—well, it was as if he were out to show us that he could play Schubert’s “Erlkönig” with his eyes closed, which he proceeded to do (there was one spot that sounded a little different to me than what I’ve heard before, but he carried it off).  After this exceptionally high quality party piece, we knew better than to expect anything to top it, so the applause, while appreciative, lost the urgent quality that hopes to wring another song from the performers, bringing the evening to a happy close.

Program:

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)

Wandrers Nachtlied I, D 224; Rastlose Liebe, D 138; Am Flusse, D 160; An Schwager Kronos, D 369; An die Türen will ich schleichen, D 479; An den Mond, D 259; Ganymed, D 544

Willkommen und Abschied, D 767; Schäfers Klagelied, D 121; Versunken, D 715; Erster Verlust, D 226; Die Liebe, D 210; Jägers Abendlied, D 368

– Pause –

FRANZ LISZT Freudvoll und leidvoll (2. Fassung); CARL LOEWE Lynceus, der Türmer, auf Fausts Sternwarte singend, op. 9/VIII/3; LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Wonne der Wehmut, op. 83/1; HUGO WOLF Phänomen; BEETHOVEN Neue Liebe, neues Leben, op. 75/

WOLF Blumengruß, Ganymed; EDVARD GRIEG Zur Rosenzeit, op. 48/;  LISZT Der du von dem Himmel bist (1. Fassung); LOEWE Erlkönig, op. 1/3; SCHUBERT Wanderers Nachtlied II, D 768

Zugaben:

ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810–1856) Singet nicht in Trauertönen, op. 98/7; LISZT Es war ein König in Thule; FRANZ SCHUBERT Erlkönig, D 328

Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber in Schwarzenberg

July 3, 2012

Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber, June 18, 2012

Angelika Kauffmann-Saal, Schwarzenberg, Austria

I fell under Christian Gerhaher’s spell in May of this year when Vancouver was one of a few North American cities lucky enough to experience  him in recital with András Schiff.  Readers of the Lieder-L mailing list will recall my delight in the collaboration between what I called Gerhaher’s  “plain style” of singing  in service to the texts and Schiff’s highly detailed readings of accompaniments by Beethoven, Haydn, and Schumann.  So I was pleased that Gerhaher was one of the artists I would hear in recital at the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg, this time with his usual accompanist, the very able and sensitive Gerold Huber.  (Schiff performed there too, in a solo recital of variations by Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Mozart.)

True to the implication of the “Schubertiade” series title, this recital consisted of 23 Schubert songs, of which I was very familiar with about three, recognized several more, and was hearing many for the first time that I could remember.  The first song, “An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht”,  describes the many aspects of life that the moon can see in its wandering through the night sky.   A rather long and somewhat episodic song, it not only introduced the Romantic themes of many of the succeeding songs: wandering, nostalgia, death, happiness in and loss of love, but it also showed the expectation on the part of this serious singer that the audience would immediately be able to concentrate and did not need to be gently led into the program by a shorter, livelier piece.  The hallmark of Gerhaher’s singing style was the same here as in the previous recital: a voice  that moves easily and consistently through registers and dynamic  levels, dedicated to  the clear expression of the texts.  I also admired the sheer beauty of the voice itself, the smoothness with which he executed the ornaments written into the song.  The one slight technical flaw was that I couldn’t hear the last note, which is fairly low compared with the overall tessitura.

While I was highly satisfied with the recital as a whole, not all my companions on the tour felt the same.  It was pointed out that Gerhaher’s face had remained very serious throughout the performance (except at the outbreak of a rather alarming coughing fit from the audience during a break between songs, at which the singer gave a shrug and a somewhat rueful smile—he does have a medical degree but was not in a position to help at that moment), to the point where some felt no emotional connection with him at all.  I found this interesting, as I had not been bothered by that and I am normally quite sensitive to a singer’s physical presentation.   Admittedly, the performers had chosen a rather melancholy set of songs, which may say something else about them, so I didn’t necessarily expect to see smiles.   But I may also have been tuning in to aspects of Gerhaher’s performance that, to me, at least, make him a singer’s singer: his stage presence is contained but not stiff, and his voice, which has been described by detractors as monochrome, is so freely produced and unforced, that the color is beautiful enough to listen to all evening as he demonstrates his deep understanding of and commitment to the poetry.   Not only can he spin one of Schubert’s melodies, but when he sings a somewhat declamatory piece like “Totengräberweise”, I feel that he’s talking directly to me.  While a singer like Florian Boesch actively works to create a character in a song, Gerhaher’s persona is essentially that of a serious and committed singer presenting a song to the best of his formidable ability.  Obviously, this doesn’t work for everyone, but I am surprised at how well it works for me.

As had been the case in Vancouver, Gerhaher had a music stand beside him, at which he occasionally glanced, presumably to check words.  This seems to be a more common practice than I might like, as three of the five lieder recitals I saw at Schwarzenberg included stands, presumably with the texts (since the singers never turned pages, it was almost certainly not the scores).   Depending upon the singer and how noticeably they rely upon it, this device may detract from their connection with the audience.  I noticed it more with Bernarda Fink, for instance, than with Christoph Prégardien, whose dramatic connection with the songs was much more intense and made up for the downward glances.  In Gerhaher’s case, since his style is reminiscent of oration, the occasional glance at notes seemed to fit with it.

I don’t have many notes about the songs themselves.  While the artists have not recorded them, they will be presenting this program at various U.K. and European venues this year, including  the Wigmore Hall in November:

An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht, Hoffnung (D 295), Im Jänner 1817, Abschied (D 475);

Herbst, Über Wildemann, Der Wanderer (D 649), Der Wanderer an den Mond, Der Zwerg, Abendstern, Im Walde;

[Intermission]

Nach einem Gewitter, Der Schiffer (D 694), An die Nachtigall, Totengräber-Weise, Frühlingsglaube, Nachtviolen, Abendlied für die Entfernte;

Wehmut, Der Strom, Der Hirt, Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, Nachtgesang, Der Sänger am Felsen

The two encores, also by Schubert, were
Seligkeit, Im Abendrot

Review of Schwarzenberg Schubertiade recital by Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis

June 30, 2012

Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis at Schwarzenberg, Austria

Sunday, June 17, 2012, Angelika-Kaufmann-Saal

I recently visited Schwarzenberg, Austria,  with a Martin Randall tour that combines a wealth of Schubertiade concerts and recitals with walks in the surrounding Bregenzerwald Alps.  The first Lieder recital we heard was Sunday night’s performance by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis of some Beethoven songs, including An die ferne Geliebte, and Schubert’s Schwanengesang.  Our tour lecturer, Richard Wigmore, noted that the entire performance could perhaps be characterized by the title of the Beethoven song cycle, as so many of the Schwanengesang songs talk of separation (either physical or emotional) from the beloved.

In that light, it is possible to see the opening songs of Beethoven as setting up the “happy” time of the relationship, as “Mailied” celebrates the awakening of love in springtime,  and “Neue Liebe, Neues Leben” shows ambivalence about the inner change this brings to the poet.  This was followed by the spiritual musing of “Abendlied unterm gestirntem Himmel”, before the artists launched into An die ferne Geliebte, as a possible hint at the reason for the unexplained separation that is the subject of the song cycle.  I found these songs less pleasing in Padmore’s voice than, for instance, the Schubert Heine songs that came later in the program.  His vocal technique allowed for neither a heroic ring nor a smooth clear tone at the top, so the climaxes of the songs could sound a bit strained.  In An die ferne Geliebte, in which Beethoven was exploring a return to simple, folklike  melody as he began his final compositional period, much of the musical interest is actually in the piano, and Paul Lewis, who has had an extensive career as a solo pianist (including the complete Beethoven sonatas), gave that part the constant presence that it requires to tie the cycle together and give musical impetus and word painting to the heartfelt, but by no means brilliant, text.

Schwanengesang, performed without interruption (other than a break for applause between the Rellstab and Heine songs), formed the second half of the program, and here the two artists (who have recorded the piece to some acclaim) really shone.    I should first mention Paul Lewis’s magical handling of the water effects in “Liebesbotschaft” and of the fog in “Die Stadt” (to name only two places where I was willing to break my concentration to make notes).  There were some spots in “Aufenthalt” and “Der Atlas” where Padmore’s low notes didn’t quite cut through the piano, but he had powerfully ringing high notes in “Der Atlas” (proof that he doesn’t always need to cover them), as well as a magically transparent tone in “Am Meer”, creating the numb memory that led to a perfect ratcheting up of the drama on the final line “Vergiften mit ihren Tränen”, which is taken by scholars to be a metaphor between being poisoned by the girls tears and the onset of venereal disease.  I have heard the Heine songs taken in different orders; here the ordering was: “Der Atlas”, “Ihr Bild”, “Das Fischermädchen”, “Die Stadt”, “Am Meer”, and concluding with “Der Doppelgänger”, where again the drama was built beautifully through flawlessly smooth dynamic changes.  After a pause, Lewis broke the desolate mood of the previous piece with the gentle opening of “Die Taubenpost”, and Padmore, whose hand gestures through the recital had been stable but showed sign of tension, opened his hands to the audience as he asked us if we also understood “Sehnsucht”, as if coming back to himself following the storm of the Heine Lieder.  Paul Lewis maintained a constantly brooding presence throughout the recital and the bows between sections, lightening up a bit during the numerous enthusiastic curtain calls that followed the performance, no doubt providing much gratification to the performers, but failing to tempt them to follow this long, demanding sing with any encores.

Review of Recital by Dawn Upshaw and Stephen Prutsman April 1, 2012, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco

April 25, 2012

A weekend visit for a family occasion in the Bay Area enabled me to attend Dawn Upshaw’s rescheduled recital for San Francisco Performances at the Herbst Theatre.  The recital had originally been scheduled for January 28 but was rescheduled as she recovered from surgery.  The printed program was the same as for the originally scheduled  event, but was modified slightly in the actual performance, most notably in the substititution of Rachmaninov’s  “Dream” for Golijov’s  “Lua Descolorida”, and Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” for Vernon Duke’s  “The Love I Long For”.  The performance order within some of the sets had also been rearranged.  (The program as sung on the evening of April 1 is appended to the review).

Her 1999 recital in Seattle, which featured a performance of a piece that she had just premiered a week earlier (James Primosch’s  “Holy the Firm”, dedicated to her), as well as Golijov’s  Lua Descolorida and sets by Mozart, Messiaen, Ravel and Vernon Duke,  was memorable not only for her clear diction, careful phrasing and line, and deep commitment to contemporary music, but also for her informality in starting the recital by explaining why it was that she was not wearing shoes (her feet had been hurting and it was more comfortable not to wear them while standing on stage and singing).

So I was rather expecting to hear something new and strange, that I might not ever want to hear anyone else sing, but that would be effective because of her technique and artistry, and that I would be willing to appreciate because of her deep commitment to the music and connection with the audience.  The program we actually heard was quite different, in that each section mixed styles, languages, and musical periods, except for the last one, which was entirely 20th century, and mostly American (or naturalized American).

An announcement was made at the beginning that the artists were experimenting with using supertitles and would welcome  audience feedback on them.   So there were no text/translation handouts, nor any program notes, other than biographies of Upshaw and Prutsman.  And, since we weren’t expected to be consulting translations during the performance, the house lights were darkened completely, which allowed us to concentrate more fully on the stage, but left us without the ability to consult visual clues in the program to know when a set had finished and we should applaud.  Since the artists for the most part moved quickly from one song to the next, we were able to tell by their slight relaxation that we had reached the end of “Part I”, and we applauded properly.  But during the second half, it wasn’t until we saw “Part IV” projected that we realized where we were and began to applaud (in fairness, even if we had memorized the order of the songs before the lights went down, there were enough modifications that we really couldn’t have known for sure).   The artists were good natured about this, so it was not too uncomfortable for anyone, but it would have been nice to be able to give appropriate rapt attention to the sets of songs that had been chosen, then promptly show our appreciation at the right moment.

The recital opened with Purcell’s “Music for a While” followed by Schubert’s “Im Frühling”: she offered to beguile our cares with an evening of music, then further specified that, in the imagined role of the bird at the end of “Im Frühling”, she would sing to us about a lost love.  The remainder of the first part tells the story of the happy time of meeting and loving.  She was particularly effective in the Debussy “La Chevelure” and  Messiaen “Le collier”, as the love story reached its peak of sensuous happiness.  Part II was the aftermath: the anger, painful longing, regret, and renewal that comes from losing a loved one, whether it be to love’s capriciousness (“Als Luise die Briefe”, “Die Bekehrte”),  to death (“Weep you no more sad fountains”), or simply through not speaking about it  (“She never told her love”) and finding oneself driven to love again  (“Rastlose Liebe”).

The second half of the recital began with a section that focused on night and sleep.  Since I loved Golijov’s  Lua Descolorida when I first heard her sing it in 1999, I confess to being disappointed that she did not sing it this time, but the Rachmaninov  “Dream” that she substituted was effective and well sung—and a good deal shorter.  This substitution could also explain how it was that we needed to be shown  the  “Part IV” supertitle to know that Part III had ended.

The recital concluded with a set that began with Bartok’s ”Eddig valo,” a folk song  that tells of leaving  home to go into exile, followed by a nicely phrased performance of Bolcom’s “Waitin’”, which can seem rather blocky if not sung skillfully.  The last two songs were written by Americans who had emigrated from Europe: Kurt Weill and Irving Berlin.  During “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” she used unusually vivid and specific gestures as she made her pianist, Stephen Prutsman, the object of her bewilderment about love and how to make it happen.  (He did his part by appearing to ignore her and  concentrate on playing the accompaniment as she moved in closer and closer, although in fact the accompaniment he played was perfectly sensitive to her performance.)

It was tempting, comparing this program of her “old favorites”, hearing some of them sung in a lower tessitura than she used to do, and knowing that she had been ill earlier this year, to think that perhaps this recital was intended to be less demanding on her vocal resources than her usual fare.  But she sang the entire first half of the program with only one brief pause between the two parts, during which time the artists did not leave the stage.  We timed this at 45 minutes of fairly nonstop singing, which to me says that there is nothing wrong with her stamina.  I am inclined to think instead that her work schedule doesn’t allow her the time to really learn and prepare new music to the standard that she expects, so she is choosing to connect with her audiences through songs that she has learned thoroughly in the past and knows well.

Upshaw is a very down-to-earth singer with an authoritative understanding of the music she sings, and few, if any, diva mannerisms.  She wore black slacks and a flowing  tunic in a black and neutral print, with high heeled black sandals.  While singing, she may not act out the specific phrases of the texts, but she is clearly connected emotionally, and her gestures are contained and supportive of the songs.  To make this connection with her emotions, she has a habit of closing her eyes, which is risky, as it can shut the audience out, but in this case it worked for me as an illustration of the intimacy of the song form, where we are invited into the singer’s soul.  (By contrast, one of my companions felt that it shut us out.)   Her singing technique, which seemingly derives from a natural facility for supporting sound on the breath but often stops short of making a rich, warm sound, increased the intimacy of this connection.  The overall effect to me was that I could be sitting in a living room, with a cousin or aunt who was singing songs that she loved, one after another, because they pleased her and she thought they would please us, and I was happy to be drawn under the spell.  (I also derived personal inspiration in seeing that it was possible to give an effective and compelling recital by singing songs that one knows and loves well, even if there are moments when one’s voice is no longer as dazzling and youthful as it once was).

Since San Francisco performances had requested audience feedback on the supertitles I sent them mine, and received the following reply: “We received many responses. Most were positive with constructive suggestions on how they need to be improved including the names of the composers and having the English for songs in English as well.  Going forward, we will consult with the artists who find super titles appropriate for their programs, as the process requires a commitment and a lot of preparation by the artists to do it properly.  When we do this again we will inform you in advance and have the texts and translations available on line the week before the concert and also have some copies of the texts and translations available at information table in the theatre for those who want them.  Program notes about the music being performed will be printed in the program book and will also be available on the website.”

Program:

Part I:

Purcell: Music for a while

Schubert: Im Frühling

Faure: L’aube blanche

Dowland: Come again, sweet love doth now invite

Schumann: Die Lotosblume

Berg: Im Zimmer

Debussy: La Chevelure

Messiaen: Le Collier

Part II:

Mozart: Als Luise die Briefe

Rachmaninoff: To her

Wolf: Die Bekehrte

Dowland: Weep you no more, sad fountains

Haydn: She never told her love

Schubert: Rastlöse Liebe

Intermission:

Part III:

Monteverdi: Oblivion Soave

Ruth Crawford Seeger: White Moon

Korngold: Mond, so gehst du wieder auf

Warlock: Sleep

Rachmaninov: Dream

Part IV:

Arr. Bartok: Eddig valo

Bolcom: Waitin’

Weill: I’m a Stranger Here, Myself

Berlin: What’ll I Do

Ben Heppner and Ascher Fisch in Recital August 14, 2008

August 22, 2008

Seattle is known for, among other things, a rainy climate and an opera company that habitually presents a work by Wagner during the one gloriously sunny month of August.  Recent summers have included the Seattle Opera’s International Wagner Competition, giving visiting and home-grown Wagnerians another opportunity to feed their passion, particularly in those Augusts when the operatic offering is a single opera rather than a full Ring cycle.   

But this year’s August opera is Verdi’s Aida, which, to a Wagnerian, is not the same thing at all.  The Company needed something to fill out the week for those who were coming to hear the Competition.  Ben Heppner, last heard here as Tristan in 1998, would be a  Competition judge; why not have the heldentenor present a song recital, accompanied on piano by Seattle Opera’s Principal Guest Conductor Ascher Fisch, who conducted the company’s recent productions of Parsifal, Lohengrin, and Der Fliegende Hollander. 

(more…)