Songs to texts by August Schlegel:
Abendröte, D690; Die Berge D634; Die Vögel, D691; Der Knabe, D692; Der Fluss, D693; Die Rose, D745; Der Schmetterling, D633; Der Wanderer, D649; Das Mädchen, D652; Die Sterne, D684; Die Gebüsche, D646; Licht und Liebe, D352
Birgid Steinberger (soprano), Robert Holl (bass-baritone) & Julius Drake (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 21 February, 2013
Venue: Middle Temple Hall, London
The historic and aesthetically imposing Middle Temple Hall has been the venue of this series of vocal recitals since 2006. It was launched by Artistic Director Julius Drake who recognised in it an addition to London’s roster of chamber music and song venues. It has been endorsed by numerous distinguished singers who have performed there with him. The shape of the hall, its width greater than its length, and with a substantial number of the audience within touching distance of the performers, creates a significant feeling of intimacy. There is no need for singers or instrumentalists to force for volume; conversely, no singer I have heard there, including those in this recital, has given the impression of audibly scaling down their instrument. Everything sounds natural in this environment.
All the artists engaged this season and before are well-known names, the one exception being Birgid Steinberger. She has had a twenty-five year career in prestigious opera houses in German-speaking Europe without, it seems, making much of an impact on this side of the English Channel; strange that such an accomplished singer could have escaped attention during such an extended career. Julius Drake made an inspired choice in engaging her. Steinberger possesses a light lyric soprano with a glowing core to the sound. It was possible to recognise immediately an experienced operatic artist with the ability to communicate vividly but with the discipline required for Lieder-singing and a consciousness of the importance of the words. Nothing too dramatic was forthcoming but a high degree of musicianship was consistently evident in subtle variations of dynamics and the use of rubato. Her platform manner exuded authority and stance, posture and facial expression were important expressive devices with which the text was supported.
Most of what was fruitful on the vocal side of this concert came from Steinberger. Her malleable soprano was allotted the most lyrical songs in the early stages of Myrthen (a collection of songs given to Clara Wieck on the occasion of her marriage to Robert Schumann, the title of which refers to a symbolic wedding gift in German tradition). She found for the opening paragraph of ‘Widmung’ an urgency unspoilt by the excessive agitation some singers bring to it; in the passage beginning “Du bist die Ruh” there was no suggestion of the temperature having dropped, and she never allowed the spirit of the poet’s (and Schumann’s) ardour to flag. ‘Der Nussbaum’ had similar musical merits: she lingered slightly but memorably over some of the phrase endings. Thus the first dimension of the composer’s musical portrait of his expectant bride was someone of delicacy and refinement. In the first Burns song, ‘Mein Herz ist betrübt’, in which the poet expresses her dreams of finding a partner, Steinberger released a powerful ardour, emotionally explicit but vocally secure. In ‘Lied der Suleika’ both she and Drake conveyed the tangible anticipations of Frauenliebe und -leben.
Incidentally, only nineteen of the twenty-six Myrthen songs were heard, the worst sufferer being Burns; the Scottish poet forfeited six of Schumann’s settings. Were they thought to conflict too greatly with the general tone of finesse? Their absence causes a loss of piquancy which is part of this varied collection. Better this, however, than to pick just a few plums, as has often been the case. It would be nice one day to hear the whole of the work.
Robert Holl is in his sixty-fifth year. The drawbacks of this did not become apparent until nearing the end of the first half; prior to that he portrayed uncomplicated males. The first of these characters was introduced by Holl’s (and Drake’s) exhilarating interpretation of ‘Freisinn’, the piano’s thumping dotted rhythms matched by the singer’s hearty declaration of his love for the outdoor life. Holl was equally at home in depicting the Falstaffian toper of Goethe’s ‘West-östlicher Divan’. The Venetian songs of Thomas Moore were given comic treatment. Holl’s characteristic pose throughout was stooping and intense. For the first of these songs he was virtually bent double; the second he treated ironically. Holl’s attitude changed for the final four songs of the collection: ironic detachment was replaced by personal immediacy as he first reflected on sadness and frustration in his relationship with Clara, paid tribute to her fragile beauty, and finally looked forward to a life of married bliss with her. If these could only logically come from a male voice it was a major task for the singer to keep his wayward voice under control in extended phrases. One could hear the sincerity behind his assumption of Heine’s texts and appreciate the way he kept his eyes closed for Rückert’s promise of a gift: ‘Was will die einsame Träne’ veered arguably too far in the direction of self-pity and vocally he needed to take audible care over the upward intervals. ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ was more convincing but one could only regret hearing a voice in decline. Holl in his prime possessed a voice of power and warmth. There was no doubting his ability to illuminate poetic texts but there was always at least a hint of unsteadiness in the top register.
It came as no great surprise that Holl could not sustain a steady line in full voice in much of the Schubert. Only in his assumption of the heavyweight personae of the mountains and stars did Holl do justice to Schlegel’s idea in writing these pantheistic poems, in which natural phenomena are given human feelings. It was disconcerting that he used copy for Abendröte and that glances were exchanged between him and Drake. Awarding him ‘Der Fluss’ with its long, slow Italianate cantilena seemed a perverse decision: he had to fake the continuity of its curving phrases by recourse to falsetto on the peak notes. One was left wondering what beauty Steinberger could have drawn out of this gorgeous and much neglected song. The soprano painted the birds as proud of their superiority to mankind before taking on the trouser role of ‘Der Knabe’ (Boy). Joyfulness abounded in her ‘Der Schmetterling’ (Butterfly) but she avoided being twee. The more inward and serious songs brought moving intensity: the rose’s life-cycle and the girl’s regret at not being able to communicate with her lover were projected clearly, without over-interpretation. The duet ‘Licht und Liebe’ only emphasised the gulf between the vocal health of the singers. Schumann’s duet ‘So wahr die Sonne scheinet’ was included as an encore; and the programme notes by Richard Stokes were as good as any I have read.
We expect technical mastery from Julius Drake and fine judgement. Both were to be found in this recital. None surpass him in recital, nor does any area of the voice and piano repertoire elude him. I suspect that working with the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja in Italian music will be something new to him (20 May). It will be interesting to see how he copes!