Emma Bell, Patrick Stewart & Emanuel Ax: Richard Strauss

Freundliches Vision, Op.48/1; Das Rosenband, Op.36/1; Nachtgang, Op.29/3; Mutterländelei, Op.43/2; Morgen, Op.27/4
Fünf Klavierstücke, Op.3: Nos.1 & 3
Zueignung, Op.10/1; Hat gesagt – bleibt’s nicht dabei, Op.36/3; Du meines Herzens Krönelein, Op.21/2; Traum durch die Dämmerung, Op.29/1; Schlechtes Wetter, Op.69/5
Enoch Arden, Op.38

Emma Bell (soprano), Patrick Stewart (narrator) & Emanuel Ax (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 28 June, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Considering that a distinguished pianist, an up-and-coming singer and a great actor were on the programme, the most surprising thing about this concert was the empty seats! Presumably the prospect of 40 minutes of Victorian melodrama in the second half was too much for even the most hardened Wigmore Hall enthusiast.

The first half was certainly brilliant if somewhat confusing. I assumed Emma Bell was a soprano, so it was rather disconcerting to find that she appeared to sing the first set of songs as a mezzo. In the opening song the tone was gorgeous, a bed of thick, but defined, velvet, with an exquisite head voice in “Der Rosenband” was breathed on a thread of sound and the triple and quadruple pianissimos were ravishing. “Nachtgang” brought tone that was not quite so focused and the faster passagework in “Mütterländelei” was slightly effortful, but there was plenty of character. “Morgen!” could have been more rapt, but the last line was ravishing.

In the second set of songs, Bell’s tone was lighter, yet there was almost Wagnerian power in the last stanzas of the first two songs and vivid word-painting throughout the set. What was missing was the aura, the individuality, the distinctiveness, which truly great artists have. But that may come. This voice is quite exceptional and – heaven be praised – Bell uses that modern vocal and instrumental anathema, portamento. This enables her to mould generous legato lines and phrases, and one can only hope that other young singers will follow her lead.

Between the songs, there were two of Strauss’s pleasant if unmemorable salon pieces that would have been left in justifiable obscurity if written by a less well-known composer. Emanuel Ax played them well.

Which brings us to “Enoch Arden”. The words are by Tennyson and the piano part is somewhat episodic and brief. Occasionally the two combine, but more often than not the piano offers a poetic postlude to the words. In the past ex-singers – such as Jon Vickers and Fischer-Dieskau – have essayed the work, and Glenn Gould and Claude Rains recorded it (now on Sony). No-one will be surprised to hear that Ax and Stewart have just recorded it, also for Sony.

The protagonist is a pretty sad figure who gets married to his great love and has children before getting marooned on a desert island for 10 years – ho hum – while sailing back from China. He returns physically wrecked and unrecognisable to find his wife has married his saintly best friend Philip, and decides to remain anonymous so as not to destroy her happiness. He then fades away, getting a massive send-off at his funeral.

For all the skill of Stewart’s mellifluous delivery, where his voice effortlessly rode some pretty loud piano passages, and for all of Ax’s poetry, “Enoch Arden” still dragged (this is not great Tennyson) until near the end, where mawkish sentimentality raises its ugly, but very effective, head. Nevertheless, to hear the voice of one of the world’s great Shakespearean actors at the Wigmore Hall was a pleasure.

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