Sechs Gedichte von Lenau und Requiem, Op.90
Lady in the Dark – My Ship
Happy End – Surabaya Johnny
Nina Stemme (soprano) & Matti Hirvonen (piano)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 31 March, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Nina Stemme and Matti Hirvonen began their BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall with Schumann’s six settings of Nikolaus Lenau, bolstered by the addition of an Old Catholic Requiem when the composer mistakenly believed the poet had died, his texts not as harrowing as one might expect from a poet described as “unhappy but marvellous” in a letter from Schumann to his publisher. Stemme was fine and upstanding in her response to the first song, ‘Lied eines Schmiedes (Blacksmith’s song), describing the “fine little steed” in proud utterances. The soprano’s musical presence was as compelling as her dazzling pink dress, singing of the “lovely cowgirl” in ‘Die Sennin’ as if proclaiming the beginning of spring. This led to the dark wanderings of ‘Einsamkeit’, the claustrophobia of the spruce wood all too evident in Hirvonen’s restless line. Stemme infused ‘Meine Rose’ with just the right amount of longing, while the sighing melodies were beautifully essayed in ‘Kommen und Scheiden’. The Requiem itself – placed after the steely, ominous ‘Der schwere abend’ (The oppressive evening) – offered major-key solace from the piano’s flowing arpeggios and celestial splendour from Stemme, who begged “Seid Fürsprecher, heil’ge Seelen” (Intercede for him, holy souls).
Stemme has formidable Wagner credentials – she sang Brünnhilde at the 2013 BBC Proms and is a noted Isolde (returning to The Royal Opera in this role next season) – and these informed a quite wonderful account of the Wesendonck-Lieder. Perhaps inevitably the two ‘studies’ for Tristan und Isolde were the focal points. ‘Im Treibhaus’ matched to perfection Hirvonen’s questioning phrases with Stemme’s deeply descriptive accounts of longing and desire, and ‘Träume’ was sung as one phrase, the rise and fall of the poem superbly judged. ‘Der Engel’, also sung as if in one breath, was perfectly suited to Stemme’s creamy tone, while ‘Schmerzen’ revealed the strength of the soprano’s lower range before her voice rang out in praise of “the glory of the dark world”. ‘Stehe still!’ was notable for its urgency.
This exceptional performance had a capacity Wigmore Hall audience hanging on every note – as did the sumptuous trio of Kurt Weill songs with which the recital ended. The boundaries between speech and song were brilliantly judged in ‘Nannas Lied’, while Stemme adopted a shriller tone for Ira Gershwin’s text in ‘My ship’, which benefited greatly from Hirvonen’s lilting rhythms. ‘Surabaya Johnny’ brought the house down but was heartbreaking, too, Johnny revealed as a heartless cad although Stemme was unable to hide and undying love for him. There were two encores – a passionate account of Brahms’s ‘Meine liebe ist grün’ and further Weill, his tragic ‘Je ne t’aime pas’, delivered with expressive gestures.