Christine Schäfer & Graham Johnson

Lieder from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre
Lieder und Gesänge, Op.57
Mädchenlieder – Op.95/6; Op.85/3; Op.107/5
Das Mädchen spricht, Op.107/3; Mädchenfluch, Op.69/9; Das Mädchen, Op.95/1
Lieder from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre

Christine Schäfer (soprano) & Graham Johnson (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 28 February, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Christine Schäfer. Photograph: onyxclassics.comThis was a connoisseur’s recital. The literary frame was provided by Schumann’s and Wolf’s settings of poems from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, with the filling being two sets of relatively brief songs by Brahms. Christine Schäfer wore a billowing black dress which contributed to the tone of a sombre evening; what humour there was appeared mainly in the form of subtle verbal irony. The literary fastidiousness of Graham Johnson could be felt in the selection of songs.

Schäfer sang throughout the evening well within herself, with mellow climaxes – though the voice can surely not be a small one, given her operatic repertoire. The opening Schumann set began with a deceptively vivacious song, belonging to Philine in the novel. Schäfer had moments of shrillness in this but they did not recur, for the rough edges were soon rounded off as the voice warmed up. The treatment of the four other songs offered made a good case for these relatively rarely performed settings of what are perennial poems. ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ has a slow, cloying tempo, interrupted by a number of disturbingly unexpected intervals. Schäfer’s musicianship was evident here, while in ‘Heiss mich nicht reden’ Mignon’s opening imperative rang out powerfully This is a song with little melody but with the sinister chest-notes before the reprise of the title-words the singer made a personal imprint. The effect of ‘So lasst mich scheinen’ was cumulative, culminating in a majestic ending. By the time she reached ‘Kennst du das Land’ one could enjoy the warmth of Schäfer’s tone, especially in the middle register, though a tendency to darken vowels had also developed. Despite the imaginative rhapsodic prelude by which Schumann initially established his individual claim to this song, it simply is no match for Wolf’s setting.

Graham JohnsonThe artificial colouring of vowels was even more noticeable in the first Brahms group: “sei” became “soi” and “wende” “wonde”. I must confess I have never found Brahms to show exceptional gifts as a song-writer. While I admit the greatness of his most frequently programmed songs, I have yet to find a hidden treasure among those which appear but seldom. There were no more than mildly pleasant surprises in either group in this case. Richard Stokes’s again-admirable programme-note made a strong and detailed case for many of the Opus 57 songs but they failed to ignite me. Both artists caught the urgency of ‘Von waldbekränzter Höhe’ and in ‘Es träumte mir’ Johnson finely set the tone before an almost offhand entry for the voice, very reminiscent of Strauss’s “Morgen”; this, on its own, with its building piano arpeggios, seemed en route to be the best of the set until the closing item, the well-known ‘Unbewegte laue Luft’, which was in quite a different class.

After the interval came the one belly-laugh of the evening, the Opus 95/Number 6 “Mädchenlied” was the cue for Schäfer to bring out her Mariandel voice, whoops, peasant accent and all. Johnson’s account of the witty accompaniment was masterly. It was during this group that Schäfer seemed released from the music-stand on which she had otherwise been dependent. The common girlish element of these chosen songs was a liberating influence in a wider sense: eagerness in ‘Das Mädchen spricht’, flamboyance in the strophic ‘Mädchenfluch’ and unbridled joy in the folksy ‘Das Mädchen’ represented a welcome interlude of brightness and vitality before plunging back into the blackness of Mignon’s predicament.

In fact it was Philine who figured first in the final group. I even found Wolf, with his consistently maintained mood throughout, superior in this. In the remaining songs the two artists left little doubt. The low piano passage at the start of the last stanza in ‘Heiss mich nicht reden’ was chilling, while Mignon’s hysteria in ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ was equally reflected in Johnson’s accompaniment. It has been said that Wolf’s setting of ‘Kennst du das Land’ is far too sophisticated for the 13-year-old Mignon. Be that as it may, the Mignon impersonated by Schäfer was a mature woman of experience, formed by suffering. The intensity she brought to this final song made it an act of transfiguration. The two encores were ‘Auf ein altes Bild’ and ‘Selbstgeständnis’ from Wolf’s Mörike collection.

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