Strauss
Die erwachte Rose; Rote Rosen
Mädchenblumen, Op.22
Fauré
Nell, Op.18/1; Les roses d’Ispahan, Op.39/4; La rose, Op.51/4
Debussy
Ariettes oubliées – Green; Spleen
Poulenc
Fiançailles pour rire – Fleurs
Strauss
Die Nacht, Op.10/3; Traumdurch die Dämmerung, Op.29/1; Weisser Jasmin, Op.31/3
Wolf
Eichendorff Lieder – Verschwiegene Liebe; Die Nacht; Unfall; Nachtzauber
Berg
Sieben frühe Lieder
Wolf
Bedeckt mich mit Blumen
Schumann
Du bist wie eine Blume, Op.25/24
Christiane Karg (soprano) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Recorded 19 July 2012 at Wigmore Hall, London
CD No: WIGMORE HALL LIVE
WHLive0062
Duration: 72 minutes
Reviewed: September 2013
The planners at Wigmore Hall must have been extremely confident about the promise of Christiane Karg to have committed her debut recital to record. Or perhaps it was the proven merits of a singer who already had a considerable reputation in German-speaking Europe, enhanced by her status as a protégée of Wolfgang Holzmair. The voice is a lyric soprano blessed at the age of 33 with an immaculate surface bloom in the middle range and with sufficient reserves of power to be able to respond comfortably to whatever tests are set for it above the stave. Her tone reminds me of Lucia Popp but the weight is palpably greater.
The release of this disc follows closely behind Karg’s appearance as Aricie in Rameau’s opera at Glyndebourne and it is difficult to avoid the impression that the choice of repertoire has been influenced by the desire to promote her versatility, solidly founded in German Lieder but entirely credible in French mélodie, both linguistically and stylistically. There is an experimental feel to the programme, a design intended to unite the contents under the theme of flowers. This proves impossible to maintain throughout and needs to be supported by the secondary theme of night.
Richard Strauss is the main batsman for the Lied and his opening group forms a mixed bouquet. The rarely heard ‘Die erwachte Rose’ is the work of a precocious sixteen-year-old who has absorbed the style of Mendelssohn and returns his lessons with interest. Arguably Karg overdoes the interpretation, with some breathy emphases which are doubtless intended to be charming but turn out to be rather arch. By the end of his teenage years Strauss was spreading his wings harmonically, as can be heard in ‘Rote Rosen’. Once into the works with opus numbers Karg and Malcolm Martineau capture the boldness of the writing in the Mädchenblumen group, in which analogies are drawn between plants and types of girl. ‘Kornblumen’ (Cornflowers) starts with colourful flourishes in a high tessitura which suits Karg well, depicting the artless, ingenuous breed, then in ‘Mohnblumen’ (Poppies) the emphasis passes to the pianist with abundant trills and grace-notes evoking a healthy, buxom extrovert ready to burst into flame like the scarlet flowers with which she is compared. In ‘Epheu’ (Ivy) Martineau’s arpeggiated figures suggest the emotional depths characteristic of that sort of devoted woman and Karg seconds them with broad phrasing, while in ‘Wasserrose’ the water-lily, initially enigmatic with ethereal, silvery sounds at the top of the keyboard, eventually dissolves into rippling semiquavers for this most majestic of flowers. Karg and Martineau make a strong case for an inexplicably neglected work, perhaps thought to be too flashy when Strauss was looked down upon by musical opinion formers.
A further trio of Strauss songs includes two all-time favourites which Karg interprets with reverence. Much of ‘Traumdurch die Dämmerung’ is located in the chest register, where Karg produces a rather hollow sound and is not at her most comfortable. Included alongside these two songs the 1895 setting of Karl Busse’s poem ‘Weisser Jasmin’ is adventurous. The text is packed with alliterations and assonances of which Wagner would have been proud and Karg makes the most of the many opportunities to enact the references to trembling, spying, sultry air, beating hearts, et al. This is a gift for the interventionist performer to show her musical imagination.
Hugo Wolf was clearly not as inspired by the lyrics of Eichendorff as he was by the collections of Mörike and Goethe poems which he set in his maturity. (The poet is better represented by Schumann’s Opus 39 Liederkreis.) Karg’s choice of four songs from Wolf’s Eichendorff collection does, however, reflect the range of the composer’s writing even when not at his most inspiring: the two-part invention of the accompaniment in ‘Die Nacht’ and the comic narrative of ‘Unfall’, in which the composer entertainingly demonstrates his skill at painting motion, sound, demeanour and incident have parallels among the masterpieces.
Karg’s musicianship is well illustrated in the disparate early Alban Berg songs with their combination of lush fin de siècle chromaticism and atonality. ‘Traumgekrönt’ is probably the best of these settings, an economical lyric poem in an equally economical setting, in which the singer does not overdo the swooning. More flamboyant is her highly dramatic performance of ‘Die Nachtigall’. The search for resolution established in the opening strophe is resumed when the verse is repeated and voice and piano press forward powerfully to a triumphant conclusion.
Mélodie is represented by three composers markedly different in style. The Fauré group offers the well-known ‘Nell’ of 1878 and then proceeds through the development of the composer’s style with ‘Les roses d’Ispahan’ of 1884 to the more harmonically enigmatic ‘La rose’ written in 1890. She and her experienced partner know how important it is to maintain the momentum of this composer’s flowing line, indeed ‘La rose’ shoots forward with hardly a pause for breath. The soprano does not overdo the sultry eroticism of ‘Les roses d’Ispahan’, unlike some singers who deliver it with a purring intimacy. By comparison, Debussy’s ‘Green’ is virtually motionless and one has time to admire how in the final strophe the impression of drowsiness and of eyelids weighed down by sleep is magically conveyed. Karg’s French is consistently good, indeed paradoxically it is more satisfying than her German! The articulation of the German text is sometimes over-fussy. Rolled Rs, prominent sibilants, final consonants strongly voiced: these are reminiscent of English cathedral chorister.
The recording has been well executed, though perhaps not quite reaching the excellent standards of those I have previously reviewed from this source. The occasional minor glitches, a smudged entry here, a verbal slip there, are well within the parameters of acceptability. However, the balance brings the voice uncomfortably far forward for such a large instrument. And it is the scale of the voice which continually draws attention to itself. I am confident that Christiane Karg has an outstanding talent; I suspect that it may eventually find its home more in opera than Art Song but this is still an impressive programme.

 

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