4 Mignon Lieder
arr. Hall Johnson
Spiritual: A City called Heaven
Ich liebe dich
Carnival – Mira
Christine Brewer (soprano) & Roger Vignoles (piano)
Recorded 8 September 2007 in Wigmore Hall, London
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: May 2008
CD No: WIGMORE HALL LIVE
Duration: 77 minutes
Christine Brewer is an aristocrat among contemporary singers. Possessed of the self-assurance to develop her career slowly and judicious and enterprising in her exploration of repertory, her public appearances are always events, never routine. This recital, which opened the 2007/08 Season at Wigmore Hall has been issued promptly in the rewarding “Wigmore Hall Live” series, demonstrates her versatility and initiative in programme construction.
Brewer’s voice, endowed with the maturity of an artist settled into her 50s, is not one of those bright, gleaming sopranos who have been cast in the jugendlich dramatisch fach in recent times. A warm, rich mezzo-like timbre to go with ample reserves of power relates her more to singers such as her fellow American of 50 years ago, Eileen Farrell. Brewer begins with “Wesendonck-Lieder”, subfusc Wagner, and containing two Studies for “Tristan und Isolde”, though the musical realm of that opera is here, at most, embryonic. Indeed the first song, ‘Der Engel’, has an Italianate vocal style, with a major-minor-major structure and an almost Bellinian cantilena. Brewer’s words are a little veiled as she warms up and works to contain her instrument to the dimensions of this serene song. ‘Stehe still!’ finds her exercising her dramatic attack at the high point of each of the first two agitated verses before she extends the note-lengths with impressive breath control, as the music follows the path of the ‘Tristan’ Love Duet in subsiding into gently rising phrases. The text of this song seems thoroughly pretentious, with a potentially bombastic ending, but Brewer avoids the risk of over-stating the metaphysical implications of the poetry, which Wagner has, in any case, set with no great conviction. ‘Im Treibhaus’ and ‘Schmerzen’ embody opposite points of the dynamic spectrum: There is not a hint of surface grain or unsteadiness in Brewer’s soft opening to the former, nor does the upward reach onto pp high notes embarrass her. The blaze of tone as sunrise is proclaimed and the triumphant climax to the latter offer evidence of the voice’s amplitude. In the final song the composer has run the end of the first three verses into the word “Träume” at the beginning of the next; Brewer sweeps forward powerfully in each case, then sustains the gradual retreat to piano as the dreams fade.
There follows the austerity of Hugo Wolf’s “Mignon” settings to the words of Goethe. The singer is allowed little access to melody in these compositions and arguably the greater fulfilment is offered to the pianist but Brewer certainly has the voice and commands the style needed for this brief excursion into the world of the composer at his most forbidding. The all-important discipline of line and accuracy of intonation support the concentration of tone. In ‘Heiss mich nicht reden’ the constantly changing dynamics are scrupulously observed, while in ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ there is an obsessive feeling of the tempo only reluctantly being kept under restraint, from which it breaks out repeatedly, with the pianist unleashing aching chromatic lines. The singer predominates in ‘So lasst mich scheinen’ but in “Kennst du das Land” a partnership of equals is re-established in what is an epic performance of the song. One wonders whether this would have been overwhelming in Wigmore Hall’s auditorium. No matter: preserved as a recording we have a performance of vivid power.
In the first half the audience is reserved but in Britten’s “Cabaret Songs” (words by W. H. Auden) the members of it are audible. It seems that this work is unfamiliar to them and they respond to each surprise as it turns the corner. ‘Calypso’ has a number of both lyrical and witty interludes but keeps on returning to the breathless eagerness of the poet for re-union with his new lover Chester Kallman. Brewer gives us her own whistles to add to the instrumental train rhythms. ‘Johnny’ is a study in musical pastiche, with each verse set to a different musical style, as the hopelessly infatuated girl pursues with ever-increasing urgency her amorous quarry: first folksong to reflect a rural excursion, then dance music from a Christmas Ball, followed by a parody of the conventions of Grand Opera: recitative, vocalises, scales and emotive high notes, all of which bring her to Heaven. To the strains of a slow waltz she declares herself willing to submit herself to marriage. But each time Johnny rebuffs her with a frown. In the final verse she addresses him directly, with cosmic over-statement, and Britten cleverly allows a reminiscence of the frowning figure on the piano to represent this last rejection. Both performers enact this comedy with wit and perception. Brewer’s appropriately guttural tone in that song is replaced in ‘Tell me the truth’ by her best slinky mode, with regular visits to the chest register, over a vamp accompaniment. Then, in the final ‘Funeral Blues’, the words of which are familiar from their quotation in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, she repeats the two-bar phrase with growing intensity, sharing the spotlight with glissandos from the pianist. Throughout, with a mixture of a pungent chest register and taut, overwrought phrases around the top of the stave, Brewer exploits the strengths of her dramatic soprano in music that has strong theatrical connections, having originated in incidental music for the Auden/Isherwood play “The Ascent of F6”.
John Carter is a mysterious figure (it is unsure whether he died in 1964 as reported) but his “Cantata” is a rewarding recital piece, a setting of four spirituals in classical forms. The opening rondo ‘Peter go ring dem bells’ against a pealing accompaniment, culminates in a spectacular climax with Brewer rising to a top B flat and a long crescendo on her final A flat. A barren ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’ is followed by a vocally passionate ‘Let us break bread together’. In the final Toccata ‘Ride on King Jesus’ we return to the busy style of its opening counterpart in a setting which is both vocally and pianistically taxing. Throughout, Brewer’s partnership with Roger Vignoles is a union of equal virtuosity and resourcefulness.
One feels that musical and literary sophistication co-exist in this singer with a homespun naturalness and the encores bear witness to this, with one of Richard Strauss’s most effusive songs sandwiched between a gospel song and an exercise in nostalgia which, Brewer tells us, is a favourite of William Lyne, the former Director of Wigmore Hall, who first brought this artist to the venue.
Tony Faulkner’s engineering provides an ideal balance between singer and accompanist for home listening. One feels that the performers are addressing themselves personally to the listener. This is an imaginative programme for which texts and translations are provided, except for the Britten (for copyright reasons, though Auden’s poems are relatively easy to find on the Internet) and Gerald Larner has contributed a typically informative booklet-note.