From Monte Pincio, Op.39/1
A Swan, Op.25/2
When I hear the song, Op.39/6
With a waterlily, Op.25/4
Songs by the Sea
Nina Stemme (soprano) & Bénédicte Haid (piano)
Reviewed by: John T. Hughes
Reviewed: 8 March, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Stemme had the benefit of a fine accompanist in Bénédicte Haid, who responded to the moods and melodies of the songs with sensitivity and suitability: some crashing chords in Nystroem’s “Songs by the Sea” elicited the necessary power. These five songs, reflecting their composer’s love of the sea, by which he was inspired, were the least known of those in the programme. If I had to choose the one group which gave me most pleasure, I should pick the Nystroem cycle. (Anyone who cares to hear them can find performances on CD. I also recommend Nystroem’s “Soul and Landscape”.)
It was Grieg, however, whose songs came first in the recital. Immediately one was aware, had one not heard her previously, that Stemme has a big voice, open and ringing at the top, firm and rounded in its lower range. In “From Monte Pincio”, she showed that she could descend to the mezzo-soprano department with neither strain nor weakness. Indeed, one might think of her as a soprano-mezzo, if there were such a category. Yet she scaled down her tone for “Solveig’s Lullaby” and “A Swan”.
Seemingly, whenever songs of Strauss are on the menu singers choose from the same few over and over again. A look at the list of what he wrote shows that many are heard rarely on record and ‘never’ in concert. Fortunately, Stemme and Haid performed the five heard here very well, the pianist’s light touch being very pleasing in “Morgen”. Stemme soared easily in the more exuberant songs, such as “Cäcilie”, in which the top of the voice burst forth ecstatically.
The second half opened with the Nystroem cycle. These are not songs that are likely to be hummed on one’s way home, yet they are not devoid of melody. It is Nystroem’s atmospheric descriptions that held my attention, whether the intimacy of “Out in the skerries” (of a day which “shall come when the wind stands still”) or “Nocturne”, with “the moon afloat above the sea tender, full and white”. In contrast is the jagged “I built a home near wide seas”.
Wagner and his “Wesendonck-Lieder” came last, allowing Stemme to caress “Der Engel” in warm tone and expand that tone in the more effusive “Stehe still!”. If I may use a rather strange analogy, her lush, focused tone in “Schmerzen” brought to mind a rich, succulent fruit-cake into which one wished to sink one’s teeth: it was glorious, almost in itself making the visit worthwhile.
We were given two contrasting encores: Grieg’s “Jeg elsker dig” (the Scandinavian encore equivalent of “Zueignung”) and Weill’s “Surabaya Jonny”. For this latter item, Stemme introduced as appropriate raucous, even vicious, tone, which was very effective. I did not like the piece but I appreciate how well she delivered it.
It was an evening well spent. If any record company decides to record Nina Stemme in the Nystroem or Wagner cycles, smash your piggy bank, and if Bénédicte Haid is her pianist, don’t wait to pick up the fragments.