An den Mond, D193
Suleika I, D720
Im Abendrot, D799
Sei mir gegrüsst, D741
Die Forelle, D550
Heimliches Lieben, D922
Der Sänger am Felsen, D482
Thekla: eine Geisterstimme, D595
An die Sonne, D270
Aus “Diego Manzanares”: Ilmerine, D458
Nacht und Träume, D827
Die Blumensprache, D519
Nähe des Geliebten, D162
An die Nachtigall D497
Des Mädchens Klage, D191
Die Männer sind méchant, D866/3
Elizabeth Watts (soprano) & Roger Vignoles (piano)
Recorded 18-20 May 2008 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: January 2009
CD No: RCA RED SEAL
Duration: 70 minutes
Within the parameters set by the contents, this release confirms the promise shown by Elizabeth Watts as winner of the Rosenblatt Recital Prize at BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2007. The chosen repertoire does exclude any dramatic songs: no “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, “Die junge Nonne” or any of the “Mignon” songs. The general tone is one of pastoral gentleness but that should not imply either monotony, lack of challenge or enterprise. Watts ventures both a number of well-known songs and rarely performed ones. The selection turns out to be a suitable showcase for an enchanting singer.
The youthful bloom on Watts’s voice is wholly intact and much of this recital could be appreciated as sheer sound. I hear a tonal resemblance to the late Lucia Popp. If I have a reservation it is that the rich overtones in the voice tend to militate against clear enunciation of the text, something that never affected her great predecessor. Roger Vignoles is both recorded in a natural balance with his partner and supports her approach to interpreting the songs, which places most emphasis on their musical values.
The appetiser is Schubert’s earlier setting of a poem entitled “An den Mond” by Ludwig Hölty. This is still the song of an inexperienced 18-year-old, with its rather crude contrast between the framing outer verses and the central reference to the past territory of love. Watts shows her control of poised soft high notes and portamento but cannot conceal the awkwardness of the setting in the final verse.Next comes a real masterpiece, the sensuous “Suleika I” of 1821. Both artists have the measure of this song’s organic development, Watts contained in the early verses, Vignoles with subtle variations in the bubbling accompaniment which predominates: for example the running right-hand semiquavers which announce the effects of the wind before “Kosend spielt er mit dem Staube” appear again before “Und mir bringt sein leises Flüstern” but this time hidden behind the left-hand ostinato rhythm. They judge the rise to the impassioned F major climax faultlessly and it arrives with a blaze of sunshine. The gradual descent to tranquillity in the final verse is just as good. No-one could mistake the erotic implications of the song in this performance.
“Im Abendrot” is superbly done, with voice and piano tone as beautiful as one can imagine them to be and points made only by the most delicate of means: the word “Nein” delivered with slightly more force to indicate the pious subject’s reassertion of faith in God, the melting quaver chord easing the music back to the tonic key at “Und dies Herz”, and the very slight slowing for the final phrase as she drains the cup of spiritual nourishment. In “Sei mir gegrüsst!” the dynamic range is narrower than Schubert’s markings prescribe, never loud enough when ff is marked and rarely registering the contrast with adjoining pp phrases. Watts brings no great personal insight to “Die Forelle” but Vignoles impresses with the absolute clarity of the rising sextuplets.
“Nacht und Träume”: how does a young singer approach a familiar masterpiece like this? It cannot be like a solo athletics event – try to run faster or jump higher than has ever been done before. Performances of well-known works cannot be constantly excelling their predecessors. On the other hand, where the composer has set obvious challenges there is an irreducible minimum to be achieved. With “Nacht und Träume” Schubert demands the ability to sustain long legato phrases. How things have changed in the last sixty years! When Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded this song on one of his earliest 78s, his breath-control was regarded as miraculous. The story since then has been of increasing numbers of singers being able to master the technical challenges. Now it can almost be taken on trust that any singer engaged at a major venue will be able to deliver the extended phrasing. Watts is no exception. In listening to her version, therefore, the interest switches from technical achievement to interpretation and treatment of musical detail. In this regard Schubert leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre, as his only dynamic indication is a pp at the opening of the song. I will not analyse all the minutiae of the finished interpretation. Suffice it to say that Watts seems to follow where the music naturally leads, the ebb and flow of the vocal line being reflected in her crescendos and diminuendos, with even a messa di voce on the second appearance of the word “Nacht” itself. The delivery of the text includes some thoughtful minute hesitations before significant words. None of these are artificially underlined.
As for the other songs in the standard repertory, the sheer loveliness of sound in “An die Sonne” and “Nähe des Geliebten” often beguile one, the latter setting enriched by differential treatment of the repeated strophes. “Frühlingsglaube” is done quite straightforwardly, though a little hesitation before the second “Es blüht das tiefste Tal” suggests a change of emotional gear and initiates the song’s conclusion. The second version of “Thekla eine Geisterstimme” conveys the otherworldly nature of the character by keeping within the range of a perfect fourth. This area between B and E is a particularly delightful and haunting part of Watts’s voice; one can almost forgive the song’s repetitiveness.
The rarely performed songs include two to texts by female cultural amateurs. Hilary Finch in her stimulating booklet note poses the question whether “Heimliches Lieben” is a “charming period-piece” or a “gentle parody of drawing-room sentimentality”. Watts treats it lightly, preferring floated notes and pearl-like innocence of tone to explicit passion. “Der Sänger am Felsen”, with its prominent part written with flute in mind, and appears with only two out of its five verses. Though a successful setting of the elegiac nature of the text, the strophic melody does threaten to outstay its welcome.
The rarest specimens are “Liane”, a ‘boating’ song with a recitative-like beginning, “Aus ‘Diego Manzanares’: Ilmerine”, a fragment of operatic-style writing, and “Lambertine”, a properly completed drawing-room aria, the latter the most rewarding excavation. “Marie”, a setting of a poem by Novalis, contains perhaps the most memorable individual moment in this recital, as the voice hovers in the air at the F-sharp on the word “verweht”.
Watts here offers a restricted view of her potential in Art-Song. One is sometimes frustrated at her reluctance to use full voice. The choice of a narrow programme for her debut recital may be wise, however; those singers who have offered a mixed recital for their opening shot have not always exhibited their talents effectively. Watts’s and Vignoles’s final offering, “Die Männer sind méchant”, with the singer’s characterisation and the pianist’s wit, gives promise of a wider spectrum to come.