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S & H Concert Review

Opening Gala Concert of the Director’s Festival, Wigmore Hall, November 28th 2002. Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Britten: Angelika Kirchschlager, Ian Bostridge, Mitsuko Uchida, Julius Drake (ME)


This event was the first in a series of some 40 concerts celebrating William Lyne’s 36 years as Director of the Wigmore Hall, an era which will end with his retirement in May 2003, the month of the final Gala which will bring down the curtain on a unique career as the Hall’s guiding light: those 40 or so concerts, in addition to the Wigmore’s ‘normal’ programme of song recitals and chamber music of the highest quality, will feature some of the greatest musicians of our time, including Peter Schreier, Andreas Scholl, Ian Bostridge, Anne Sofie von Otter and Matthias Goerne, all very strongly associated with the Wigmore either through having first made their names there or simply through having developed a mutually affectionate relationship with the place and its audience. It is fitting to refer to the coming events on this occasion, since it has been typical of this venue under this leadership that the outlook is to the future, not only in the sense of fostering the careers of young artists but also in taking a 21st century approach to access to the concerts in terms of educational activities and inspired use of media opportunities.

The present evening could hardly have provided a better example of what the Wigmore is about; a programme of great music, programmed with inspiration and performed by singers and pianists who have very few equals in the world. That, simply stated, is what this Hall is for, and its packed houses for such events are ample demonstration of the fact that there is no need for the incoming director to import incongruities such as ‘World Music’ or in any way ‘dumb down’ what it offers – it is unashamedly elitist, in the non-pejorative sense of that word, and that is part of its very strength.

Schubert wrote of his performances of the ‘Ellens Gesänge’ with the baritone Michael Vogl, that ‘The way in which Vogl sings and I accompany, and how we seem in such a moment to be one, is for these people something quite new…’ and whilst such perfect union is hardly ‘new’ for Wigmore audiences, Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake sang and played with such unanimity of purpose and intimacy that the songs themselves sounded as fresh as though we were hearing them for the first time. Kirchschlager is one of those very rare singers who are able to arrest your attention at once, on both an intellectual and an emotional plane; she shares with Matthias Goerne a level of focus, control and intensity which enables her to become at one with the song in an instant – there is no sense of warming up, since you are immediately there with her in the words and music. Both ‘Raste Krieger!’ and ‘Jäger, ruhe von der Jagd’ were superbly characterized and full of attention to detail; in the former, her variety of tone colours in such lines as ‘Die im Zauberlande blühn’ was masterly, and she fined down her voice to the merest thread at the end to stunning effect, with Drake providing exquisitely delicate accompaniment in the final stanza, just as exactly as he had evoked the galloping steeds of battle in the sixth stanza.

‘Ave Maria’ was entirely free of the cloying sentimentality which it often acquires; this was edgy singing, not at all ‘gemütlich,’ and of course not without risks – the attack on the first phrase was not quite clean, but it was more than compensated for by the superb legato of ‘Jungfrau mild’ and the heartfelt plea of ‘Ave Maria! Unbefleckt!’ The same level of passionate commitment was found in the next group, Wolf’s ‘Mignon Lieder,’ where a slightly thin tone at the end of ‘So lasst mich scheinen’ detracted hardly at all from a deeply committed performance. The highlight of the first half of the concert was ‘Kennst du das Land,’ which displayed Drake’s wonderfully empathetic, fluid playing and Kirchschlager’s intense, superbly varied response to the text; her voice has about it a tremulous quality, without at all suggesting any lack of steadiness, which is deeply affecting, and it was heard to great advantage in the anguished ‘Geht unser Weg; O vater, lass uns ziehn!’ They were joined by students from the Royal College of Music for the part-song setting of ‘Ständchen,’ once again highlighting the value placed by this Hall on looking to the future, and providing those who had not previously heard this side of Schubert with a new and delightful experience.

The second half belonged to Ian Bostridge and Mitsuko Uchida, who gave highly individual readings of Schumann’s ‘Liederkreis’ Op. 39 and Britten’s ‘Winter Words.’ As with Kirchschlager and Drake, these artists give performances which are not cosy and predictable but risky and thought-provoking, and so it was with the ‘Liederkreis,’ which, as Richard Stokes reminds us in his learned and readable notes, ‘is no idyll.’ True, and Bostridge’s approach was angular, bitter and disquieting, with most of the expected beauty being provided by Uchida’s delicate, intensely romantic, supple playing. There was little sense, at least in the singing, of Schumann’s ecstatically fervid state of mind when he wrote the cycle – ‘I want to sing myself to death like a nightingale.’ – instead, we experienced a melancholy and sometimes highly sardonic reading, with the high points coming in the more dramatic songs such as ‘Waldesgespräch’ rather than the more usually rapturous ones. Indeed, rapture was in short supply here; Bostridge sang such lines as ‘Und meine Seele spannte’ (Mondnacht) and ‘Zu mir, phantastische Nacht’ effortfully rather than passionately, and the final ‘Frühlingsnacht’ was not the usual release of idealized bliss.

‘Winter Words’ was a different story altogether; if ‘Liederkreis’ had seemed cool at times, this was as committed a display of singing as could be imagined – indeed, I cannot recall a finer performance of these marvellous songs. Hardy’s poetry called forth from Britten some of his most exact and inventive settings, and this music catches uniquely that characteristically Hardyan sense of the conflict between man’s vulnerability and Nature’s (or God’s) indifference. Bostridge’s diction, expressiveness, phrasing and characterization here were all exemplary, nowhere more so than in those little, seemingly casual phrases such as ‘as if incurious quite’ and ‘The baby fell a-thinking’ and his astringent tone and swaggering phrasing at ‘This life so free is the thing for me’ caught the authentic note both of Hardy’s irony and Britten’s austerity. Uchida accompanied with unobtrusive virtuosity, such touches as the piano’s echoing of a train whistle in ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ and the imitation of a violin in ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’ being exactly done, and the whole perfectly capturing Britten’s directness.

‘The Choirmaster’s Burial,’ sometimes known as ‘The Tenor Man’s Tale,’ is one of Hardy’s most moving poems, and Britten’s setting of it is one of his greatest achievements, combining the grand, canon – like tune of ‘Mount Ephraim’ with a vocal line that is at once intensely lyrical and nobly sparse, and Bostridge’s performance of it would be enough to convince anyone that every word of the lavish praise that has been heaped upon him is justified. His open, engaging tone in the beginning of the narrative, his deeply moving ‘As soon as I knew / That his spirit was gone,’ his almost vicious characterization of the Vicar’s prosaic point of view and his gripping telling of the tale’s conclusion, with the ghostly band singing over the grave, all represented singing of true greatness.

The musical part of the evening concluded with two encores which were as graceful a tribute to William Lyne, and as loving a hymn to Franz Schubert, as could possibly be imagined; I assume they had been chosen because they are particular favourites, and they were given performances which were amongst the finest I have heard. Bostridge sang ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ with beautiful tone, impassioned phrasing and perfectly judged rubato, each ‘Ich denke / Ich höre…’ leading to a lovingly shaped, exquisitely shaded stanza, and Uchida accompanied him with eloquent warmth.

Kirchschlager’s singing of ‘Der liebliche Stern’ was the epitome of everything that great Schubert singing should be; she gave just the right amount of pathos to ‘der Busen so bang und schwer’ without overloading the phrase, she spun out the most perfect legato throughout, and both she and Drake scrupulously observed the marking of ‘Etwas langsam’ so that instead of the jolly little rocking rhythm one so often hears in this song, it was given the most earnest slowness, making ‘Es zittert von Frühlingswinden’ so poignant that I’m sure I cannot have been the only one to feel a furtive tear coming.

John Tusa, one of the Hall’s Trustees, made a graceful closing speech in which he referred to the Wigmore’s ambitious plans for the future, including acquiring the Hall’s lease and pressing on with the aim of making concerts available to audiences other than the privileged 450 or so who form the regular attendees. Such an aim would certainly prove worthwhile if the feedback which I regularly receive after reviewing Wigmore concerts is anything to go by, with message after message, from all over the world, saying that for the few minutes during which they were reading about the concert, they had felt as if they had been present, and wished that they too could enjoy the ‘live’ experience of concerts such as those given on this evening.

 

Melanie Eskenazi


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