We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, April 17, 2017


Anne Schwanewilms (Photo by Javier del Real)

Fans of Richard Strauss' prolific song output turned out in full force at Alice Tully Hal for a recital by the illustrious soprano Anne Schwanewilms and her perfect piano partner.Malcolm Martineau. These ardent fans showed their appreciation with thunderous applause and a standing ovation at the end; Ms. Schwanewilms repaid them with two outstanding encores which, for us, were the highlights of the afternoon.

Although not quite as prolific a songwriter as Franz Schubert, Strauss' contribution to the lieder literature is incalculable. Are all the songs of equal value?  Of course not, and Schubert wrote a few duds himself! How does a singer make her selections from among such abbondanza? With great difficulty, we imagine.

A number of Ms. Schwanewilms' choices were unknown to us and will require subsequent hearings for us to decide how much we like them. But there were no such reservations about the familiar lieder. Like many others, we take pleasure in hearing the familiar, especially if the artist can bring something new to the performance.

Ms. Schwanewilms has impeccable technique and innate musicality, knowing just how to use phrasing, word coloration, and dynamic variety to bring out the subtleties of the text and music. She achieved expressiveness with such an economy of gesture that when she gesticulated considerably in her performance of "Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen" it took us by surprise.

There is yet another reason that our interest was keener for the familiar songs. The texts were provided in the program but the light was insufficient to follow along and looking down at a program always robs us of our connection with the artists; a strong case could be built for projected titles. We do speak German but in the stratospheric registers in which Strauss wrote, the words were not uniformly comprehensible.

So, on that account, we preferred her performance of the joyful tribute to the beloved-- "Du meines Herzens Kronelein", the haunting "Die Nacht", and the encores--the ethereal "Morgen" with its gorgeous arpeggios, and the nostalgic "Allerseelen", all of which we know well.

We also enjoyed "Geduld" which exploited the secure lower register of Ms. Schwanewilms' instrument and had a pleasing rocking rhythm from Mr. Martineau's piano.

Written much later were "Drei Lieder der Ophelia" (1918) in which the two artists conveyed the character's unbalanced mental state with eerie harmonies and a dramatic vocal line.

Each half of the program inserted a set of lieder by Hugo Wolf, a contemporary of Strauss, all of which utilized texts by Morike, a poet in whose work the composer found ample inspiration. Our favorites included the mournful "Verborgenheit" and the forlorn lament of an abandoned maiden "Das verlassene Magdlein" in which the strange harmonies combine with the text to paint a picture for us, like a scene in an opera. 

For much of the program, while listening to the unfamiliar songs, we abandoned the attempt to understand the words and focused on the sound of Ms. Schwanewilms' voice. We found it most agreeable in the pianissimo passages; her high notes floated beautifully. However, we heard a harsh metallic edge when she sang forte in the upper register.

Comparing notes with a few friends who sat closer, we realized that the balcony is a poor place to experience the connection with the artists that we cherish in a lieder recital, which is why we prefer a smaller hall.

Mr. Martineau, as one would expect, played in total support of the singer, never overwhelming.  We think of him as "magic hands Martineau"!

(c) meche kroop

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