Feature Review – Strauss Song Series at Wigmore Hall

Written by: Richard Nicholson & Kevin Rogers

A selection from Richard Strauss’s Lieder together with song-settings by Bridge, Debussy, Gurney, Poulenc, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky

Rebecca Bottone, Rachel Nicholls & Elizabeth Watts (sopranos)

Daniel Norman & Nathan Vale (tenors)

Benjamin Bevan (baritone)

Paul Plummer (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London

Friday 4 January-Sunday 6 January 2008

Richard Nicholson writes…

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

It is a curious paradox that Richard Strauss’s music, nearly sixty years after his death, still stands low in academic esteem but enjoys the support of performers and audiences. The charges against him have changed little since the years immediately following his death. He is accused of writing no significant orchestral work after Eine Alpensinfonie of 1915 (many would say since the start of the twentieth century), in opera of making a musical regression after the modernistic promise of “Salome” and “Elektra”, of repeatedly mining a similar vein, of much recycling of existing compositions, of having a head-in-the-sand attitude to what was occurring around him politically and a withdrawal in his final years into an outdated musical world. Nevertheless, the orchestral tone poems remain popular and “Der Rosenkavalier” has maintained a secure place in the central operatic repertoire.

Strauss maintained the composition of Lieder throughout his long creative life but even they have suffered criticism: he has been attacked over the quality of texts he set, in particular that most of his chosen poets belong to the second division. This is in the face of the continued appearance of his songs in recitals. It was interesting to read some recent comments by Jonas Kaufmann, who devoted one of his earliest CDs to Strauss: he maintains that the composer makes consistently high demands of his performers: according to Kaufmann, he wrote no song in which a singer can relax.

Paul Plummer

A more credible argument is that the songs that are regularly performed come exclusively from a narrow group of favourites. This vigorous defence, mounted by the pianist Paul Plummer, of Strauss’s Lieder, was particularly illuminating. In what amounted to a miniature festival, 59 Strauss songs were performed, well over a third of the composer’s total output in the genre (excluding juvenilia and songs with orchestral accompaniment). Three concerts were given, on successive evenings, with the opportunity to compare Strauss with contemporary composers from France, Russia and Britain. Plummer was the ubiquitous accompanist.

Elizabeth Watts

The main vocal draw on the first night was Elizabeth Watts. Winner of the Rosenblatt Song Prize at the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World 2007 and close to sweeping the board at the main event, Watts already looks assured of high status both in the opera house and on the concert platform. The range of Strauss’s Lieder was neatly encapsulated within the opening group. The soaring full-voiced phrases against heavy block chords with which he sets Carl Busse’s “Blauer Sommer” depicting the atmosphere of a sultry summer’s day played to the singer’s strengths, while the jagged lines of the accompaniment in the following “Blindenklage” came from a different musical realm. The sensuousness of one poem against the piquancy of the other suggested Strauss’s eclecticism in his choice of texts. Two Brentano lyrics followed: the well-known “Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden”, with its leaping and diving figures to test vocal agility and the less familiar “An die Nacht”, in which the eroticism which threatens to become too literal is dampened in a wholesome coda. Watts had to cope with the nuisance of a persistent ring-tone from a mobile phone during two of these songs but exuded class.

One sensed the risk that Benjamin Bevan might be reduced to the role of supporting actor and the voice itself lacked the glamour of his partner, being backwardly produced, while the enunciation of the text was short of directness. His group was largely based on the Opus 15 songs, where the dominant influence is the poetry of the aesthetic historian Adolf von Schack. Bevan did not fully engage with his ideas; he was better in the explicit narrative of “Und dann nicht mehr”.

The first half ended where Strauss’s published Lieder writing began, with three songs from the Opus 10 set. The sublime “Morgen” received a classic interpretation by soprano and pianist, at a well-judged tempo and within the narrow range that the vocal line occupies. The equilibrium before the final phrases, the sense of time standing still, was perfectly realised. Perhaps seeking to make a strong contrast, however, Bevan and Plummer rushed the opening of the succeeding “Heimliche Aufforderung”, with the voice being in danger of submersion and the words of being lost.

Benjamin Bevan

Resuming after the interval, the singers seemed to find a fresh impetus. “Schlagende Herzen” found Plummer in his element and Bevan’s passionate climax provoked a spontaneous ovation. Both pianist and soprano excelled musically and histrionically in “Drei Lieder der Ophelia”, which Strauss wrote as part of the court settlement of his dispute with publishers Bote and Bock. The demented victim’s stance, gaze and fluctuating mood fitted alongside the unpredictable accompaniment.

For the second half interlude Bevan undertook Poulenc’s “Le travail du peintre” and seemed immediately to find home territory. Comfortable with the tessitura, the line and the French language, he joined his accompanist in successfully moving in and out of the cycle’s various moods: the wit of ‘Juan Gris’, the verve of ‘Paul Klee’, the solemnity of ‘Jacques Villon’. In her quite different French collection in the first half, Debussy’s “Ariettes oubliées”, Watts had equally avoided the trap of too uniform a treatment.

The final Strauss group revealed an unexpected treasure in “Wiegenliedchen” to words by Richard Dehmel. The line suited Bevan’s soft, spongy top register. The two Opus 36 songs to texts from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” were contrastingly rewarding, ‘Hat gesagt – bleibt’s nicht dabei’ for Watts’s playing of the central character and her use of her full vocal resources at the erotic climax, ‘Für fünfzehn Pfennige’ for her partner’s exasperated departure from the platform at the girl’s refusal!

Rachel Nicholls with Paul Plummer. Photograph: Andreas Llandino

The second evening should have opened with night creeping stealthily through the natural world in the first of the 18-year-old composer’s collections. Unfortunately, the magic that characterises “Die Nacht” came only from the pianist’s delicate fingerwork. Rachel Nicholls was completely at odds with the mood of the song as she began a battle to tame her large voice, which was to preoccupy her until well into the second half of the recital. In several of these early songs the tone overwhelmed the delicacy of the line, with loud high notes emerging as uneven splurges of sound, often starting somewhere below the true pitch, in “Mein Auge” particularly. One could hear that she had worked hard to master the technical difficulties of a song such as “Meinem Kinde” but I do not recall a “Zueignung” as hard of tone and as aggressive of delivery as this.

Daniel Norman. Photograph: Martin Tothill

Her tenor partner, Daniel Norman, had nothing like the weight of voice but his dynamic range was much more natural, while his enactment of the songs was freed from the inhibitions that nerves and vocal problems imposed on Nicholls. The confident stance with which he delivered the defiantly happy song “Die Verschwiegenen” established the ground rules of his performing style early on. “Herr Lenz” was sheer joy: Norman captured the wit of the writing and Plummer was simply brilliant in the skittering upward scales that dominate his part.

Nicholls was better suited to the Rachmaninov songs, which divided Strauss before the interval. The swelling ecstasy of “In the silence of the night” and the climax of “Dreams” benefited from her power, even if the upward octave leap in the latter was not clean. It was gratifying to hear a successful pianissimo ending to “Daisies” from her.

Her cloudy German enunciation and seemingly phonetic learning of the Russian texts were in complete contrast to Norman’s use of the text in “To you”. He was fully immersed in the character of the poet, offering power and piercing intensity at each refrain, while he played “The Pied Piper” as a real showman. The less theatrical “Spring Waters” was not as effective.

Returning to Strauss, “Befreit” benefits from glowing tone and warm involvement but Nicholls gave us an uncomfortably loud climax. Norman was technically more secure, deploying his mixed voice very proficiently in “Leises Lied”, where control is at a premium.

I confess that the “Krämerspiegel” cycle is a taste I have yet to acquire. These songs, which satirise the German music publishing industry, consist of both verbal and musical in-jokes at their targets’ expense. Only half the twelve songs were heard on this occasion, with recognition of the dance tunes and other references suggesting some of those present in the audience were having more fun than I was! It was encouraging to find Nicholls stepping up a gear: her impression of a prima donna in the opening song was vivid. Plummer took a well-deserved solo bow after ‘O Schröpferschwarm, o Händlerkreis’, where he has to play the long passage which was later to be used as the ‘Moonlight Music’ in “Capriccio”.

The soprano confirmed her progress in the Tchaikovsky group. She shaped “None but the lonely heart” well. Then she produced two effective pianissimos in “Canary” and an evenly graded diminuendo to complete “The bride’s lament”. She began the final Strauss group with a vocal performance that equalled the beauty of Strauss’s writing in “Wiegenlied”. Sustained lines were projected confidently and the voice rang out at the ending.

Norman tried manfully to make a case for two of the Opus 22 “Mädchenlieder”, in which female characters are compared to different flowers but the style in each case is disappointingly conversational and these seemed to me worthy of neglect. Not so the extraordinary “Ich liebe dich”: the Liliencron poem, arguably a masterpiece, confounds all expectations of that title – the poet offers to share with his beloved literally everything, including suffering and death. Strauss dresses it in harsh, robust music. This was a cunningly unexpected choice to end the recital.

Kevin Rogers writes…

Rebecca Bottone. Photograph: Jonathan Bottone

There were quite a few disappointments with the closing recital. The main one was that it was impossible to understand a word of what Rebecca Bottone sang. Her diction was appalling and the German she was singing could well have been French or Italian – were in not for the printed words in front of me to confirm otherwise. She, in particular, was not helped in the opening songs (from Strauss’s Opus 17 collection) by a far-too-forceful piano accompaniment. The lyricism and deft touch that ought to accompany “Ständchen” was absent, completely in contradiction to lines such as: “Mach auf, mach auf, doch leise mein Kind” (Open up, open, but softly my dear). Similarly, the sombreness of Nur mut! (Take heart!) was lost because of Plummer’s unsubtle accompaniment.

From Strauss’s Opus 32 collection Bottone gave a rather straightforward account of “Liebeshymnus” (Hymn of love), here singing the words with little meaning; in the easy-going “O süsser Mai” (O sweet May) this seemed more appropriate and was thus achieved.

On a positive note it was clear that the more operatic aspects of Bottone’s singing gave fruitful results. In “Amor” (Cupid), she sang “Sieh, die Flamme wächst geschwinde” (See, the flame is growing quickly) with great evocation and colour and her acrobatic displays of coloratura will no doubt secure her on the operatic stage. “Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten?” (How shall we keep it secret?) was her final song and again illustrated the gap she has between hitting the notes, which was secure, and achieving the sense of emotion that the words seek to evoke. The lack of any sense of thrill in lines that speak of “youthful vigour”, “brilliance” and “fragrance” was very disappointing; only the accompaniment offered any sense of their meaning.

Nathan Vale. Photograph: askonasholt.co.uk

It was left to Nathan Vale to conjure what was absent in Bottone’s offerings, and this is largely a sufficient critique. In “Das Geheimnis” (The Secret) he skilfully demonstrated his ability to explore the upper register and this was coupled with expression, where the mystery of such words as “die Violen der nacht sich erschließen?” (the Night-Violets reveal themselves?) came across very well. He also flexed his operatic credentials in “Sehnsucht” (Longing) with some superb soaring lines that morphed into supreme subtlety of tone.

However, all of this pales when set against the superb rendition of the songs by Ivor Gurney, which were a revelation. Poor Gurney suffered greatly during a gas attack during the Great War but he clung to life, dying, aged 47, in an asylum in 1937. A tragedy, given what he had accomplished. The understated disturbances that Vale gave to “Ha’nacker Mill” were spot on and the loneliness and solitude imbued in lines such as “Spirits that call and no one answers” were very affecting, transfixing one simply by the power of his voice. Outstanding. The childish anguish of “Snow” was given a similar sense of desolation at its close whereas “Hawk and Buckle”, a swashbuckling song, was jolly and lifted the spirits.

Early in his career, around 1905, Frank Bridge (1879-1941) produced a handful of songs. The selection heard here was for soprano and most exhibited the same struggle as already highlighted, though not quite as problematic. In the strange “Adoration”, it was Plummer, with a commanding calm, who held the piece together. The jolly “Go not, happy day” found ideal expression in its impishness but it was in “Come to me in my dreams” that Bottone had her most successful song, where the yearning of the music and the meanings of the words came across most effectively. In contrast, “Berceuse” was cold and ineffective.

It is worth mentioning one more Strauss song: “Die heiligen drei Könige” (The three Holy Kings). It is one of Strauss’s finest and was executed by both Vale and Plummer in exemplary fashion. Whilst Plummer’s playing was sublime, never intrusive, Vale’s singing was calm and collected, with a hint of the ecstatic where the star is followed by the Three Kings.

An encore was offered, but was not necessary, five “very short” humorous songs by William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75), and offering the only duet of the evening, a song about a collie dog.

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