In view of Dorothea Röschmann’s standing as an internationally acclaimed lyric soprano who is in the higher end of her forties, it is surprising to find that Portraits is her debut recital in terms of recording. Her reputation having been built mostly on Mozart roles, her technical prowess, musicianship and discernment make here for something outstanding. That she should be paired with Malcolm Martineau is further proof that Sony Classical has a premium release on its hands.
The title of Portraits seems not to have been thoroughly thought through and is inconsistently applied. In the cases of the Schubert and Hugo Wolf songs the poems set to music form together a portrait of a particular individual (for Wolf it is Mignon, for Schubert Mignon and Gretchen). To these could be added Schumann’s Mary Stuart ‘cycle’, the texts forming elements of an autobiography and may even have been written by Mary herself.
But where do the Richard Strauss songs fit in? Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben would be the obvious choice for completion of the assignment. There is only one other possibility. If we widen the criteria to female characters in the musical world, how about Richard Strauss’s formidable wife Pauline, an inspiration to the composer and the performer of many of his early songs, though also the source of countless domestic disputes. I am glad of any pretext to hear the Strauss songs which have been chosen here.
Mignon must have pride of place, the mystery woman who dominates Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and who has been a fascination for generations. Schubert himself, it could be argued, was fixated on her. Röschmann and Martineau are ideal interpreters of the Mignon songs. There is every indication that they have studied the poems in the context of Mignon’s experiences, past and present. While always conscious of the dramatic situation they studiously avoid any threat of over-interpretation. Both piano and vocal parts are closely recorded so we share the characters’ powerful inner debates which the poet has revealed to us. The introverted and frustrated foundling comes across with clarity.
Röschmann’s voice is a noble instrument, with just a hint of vibrancy. The sheer sound is deeply affecting, ideal for the Mignon songs with a mezzo-ish colour and weight as it moves upward towards the top of the stave. Movement across the registers is accomplished with the minimum of difficulty and certainly no ugly breaks. She makes much of this resonant chest register in the minor-key passage in verse three of ‘Kennst du das Land’. She keeps the voice under faultless control at Mignon’s moments of greatest inner emotional tension in both ‘Heiss mich nich treden’ and ‘So lasst mich scheinen’.
Goethe’s Faust provides the character, the narrative and the poetic text for three of Schubert’s songs, two of them highly familiar. There can hardly be anything new left to say about ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, which emerges as viscerally powerful as ever, its two climaxes fuelled with an erotic charge; the unfinished ‘Gretchen’s Bitte’ is a curiosity, heard here in Benjamin Britten’s completion. ‘Der König in Thule’ can be monotonous, with its rigid strophic form and repetitions of the same melodic figure over block chords. Singer and pianist vary the predictability, starting the final verse with a slight reduction of volume and hesitant steps as the tale reaches its climax.
Wolf’s Goethe-Lieder demand a singer with a wide range and dramatic scope, nothing short of vocal aggression indeed. ‘Heiss mich nicht reden’ is highly operatic, with manifold dramatic and dynamic contrasts, which Röschmann tackles with aplomb. Her ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ is short on sustained melody, long on erratic changes of tempo. ‘So lasst mich scheinen’ is a different story: both the vocal and piano parts seems constantly in search of melodic resolution which this singer powerfully achieves in the final bars, the postlude sounding in Martineau’s hands as if his efforts had left him physically exhausted.
The two artists are totally united in Wolf’s peerless setting of ‘Kennst du das Land’. Every line, every phrase is illuminated by the music. Though it is the mighty strength of Mignon’s pleas which imposes itself on the listener, sometimes the subtlest of musical description underlines the text. Both singer and pianist treat this masterly setting with the sustained respect it deserves. Only a tendency by the soprano to overdo consonants, also present in the Schumann, is a drawback.
The Mary Stuart songs were to constitute Schumann’s final cycle; it never reaches the heights which the composer scaled in his prime. Nevertheless, Röschmann makes a good case for it, the two prayers in particular benefiting from the intensity she invests in terms of characterisation. Röschmann seems intent in getting the words across clearly. The tessitura of these songs is low, but Röschmann is not at all inconvenienced by this; indeed she sounds perfectly at home in Christa Ludwig territory.It is not difficult to believe that Röschmann feels particular affinity for the songs of Richard Strauss: here she engages willingly with the tests set by the composer in his soprano songs. The partnership of this soprano and this pianist, both at the height of their powers, doesn’t miss a trick. As someone among whose pet hates are performances of ‘Morgen’ which start motionless and get slower, I find Martineau sets a perfect tempo. Röschmann makes ‘Die Nacht’ new-minted, as she does ‘Schlechtes Wetter’, a witty song which in Martineau’s playing we can hear not only Strauss’s resourceful depiction of stormy weather but which in the second half turns into a delectable waltz. In ‘Befreit’ Röschmann shows the vital command of breath control and soaring line required, supported by her partner’s quasi-orchestral playing.
This belated collaboration has made a highly auspicious start, surely to bear further fruit. The booklet includes texts and translations.