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S & H Recital Review

Schumann, Wolf, Brahms: Thomas Quasthoff, Julius Drake. Wigmore Hall, Thursday 12th September. (ME)

 

Really, I sometimes ask myself, what is the point of reviews in general, when much of the time what one reads in the so-called quality press barely discriminates between the run- of– the – mill and the sublime? To put it bluntly, if a critic can give five stars to a performance such as last week’s Kirchschlager/Keenlyside, in which the baritone was so clearly not at his best, then what is left for a recital such as this one, in which we heard one of the great voices of our time in superlative form, allied to an accompanist with whom he has such a rapport that theirs can truly be called a partnership made in Heaven? Speaking of that accompanist, the reviewer just referred to managed one vague and slightly dismissive phrase about his playing last week – playing which then lifted an otherwise merely pleasurable recital onto another level altogether, and which last night showed us that it is indeed possible to achieve that near-miraculous fusion of words and music in which the piano and voice seem as one.

The intense programme began with Schumann’s ‘Liederkreis’ Opus 24, in a performance of stunning passion and variety of emotional nuance. It continues to disturb me, however, that Quasthoff is so exceptionally reliant on the score in front of him; he is not the only singer to use one, but there are times when he seems to be reading virtually every line, and this has its effect on his communicative link to the audience. Of course many singers, chief amongst them Matthias Goerne, would quite clearly rather die than use a score, even when they are performing a totally new programme with a new-to-them accompanist, and that determination may not always serve them well, but Quasthoff has performed this material many times, and it should not be seen as impertinent to suggest that it’s time he knew it ‘off by heart’ by now. I take the possible point about using the score as a prop to deflect attention from his body, but he doesn’t have to look at the music all the time, and Wigmore audiences know what he looks like and entirely accept him as he is.

That one caveat aside, the singing and playing, at least from the third song onwards, could hardly be faulted: Drake’s fluid, delicate, loving management of the accompaniment to ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ was ideally fused with Quasthoff’s tenderness in lines such as ‘Ihr Vöglein in luftiger Höh,’ and ‘Berg’ und Burgen’ gave further evidence of this partnership’s closeness and compatibility. I cannot imagine finer Lieder performance than we heard in the final song, ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen,’ where Quasthoff’s sombre, burnished tone and his tremulous sensitivity to language, especially in the final ‘Und flüstern mit Wehmut und Liebeshauch’ were perfectly allied to Drake’s limpid, eloquent playing.

A group of Wolf’s finest songs closed the first half of the recital, offering performances which I have seldom heard equalled in many years of recital attendance; amongst currently active singers of this composer, only Goerne is at this level of intensity and deep understanding, and the power and beauty of Quasthoff’s phrasing of the sublime ‘Der Genesene an die Hoffnung’ was simply stunning. ‘Auf einer Wanderung’ was perhaps the finest performance of the evening; it’s a song we often hear in this hall, but not sung like this, with such perfection of breath control, such felicity in the shaping of the phrases, and such wondrously captivating ecstasy at those challenging final lines, that I thought for a moment that the hall was about to burst into unseemly (since not at the end of a group) applause, but no – we confined ourselves to ecstatic sighing and, from the musical gentleman behind me, the comment ‘He shows all the others how.’

The second half was devoted to Quasthoff’s beloved Brahms, a composer for whom his voice and manner are perfectly suited. These songs often possess a dark, obsessive quality, and he sings them as though they had been written for him. ‘Bitteres zu sagen denkst du’ gave another superb example of the wonderful tenderness of touch of which Drake is capable, and yet more evidence that when it comes to lovingly shaping and breathing a long line, this bass – baritone has few equals, ‘Die die Süsse selber ist’ being absolute perfection. ‘Wie bist du, meine Königin’ is one of the greatest of all Brahms’ songs, and it was given a performance of rapturous intensity, from the masterly serenity of the playing of the vorspiel to the singer’s ecstatic repetitions of ‘wonnevoll’ – blissful, indeed.

Quasthoff does still persist in those pesky remarks to the audience, which at times sound, to me, bordering on the rough – ‘You don’t have to go! I am not smelling bad, you know…’ and ‘Shall I say that again? Or am I disturbing your translation?’ I know some people lap this up, but I happen to believe that, whatever bonhomie he may choose to dispense after the recital, the artist should maintain a noble detachment when on the platform. Interestingly, he also remarked that he was delighted to see ‘so many young people’ in the audience, because ‘Lieder singing must go on…; one can hardly help but wonder how that went down with the 75% of the audience who are, putting it politely, not young: however, since he looked straight at me when he said this, his concept of ‘young’ must differ from mine, since although I was younger than most of those around me by about two or three decades, I hardly qualify for that epithet.

Three superb encores were given, and it’s a genuine delight to be able to report that these did not include the likes of ‘Danny Boy’ or ‘Ol’ Man River.’ Brahms’ ‘Auf einer Kirchhofe’ and ‘Sappische Ode’ were sung and played with sublime dedication and beauty of tone, but it was, unsurprisingly, ‘An die Musik’ which was the high point. I had already spotted the notes ready on the piano as Quasthoff spoke, and so had others around me, to judge by the delighted buzz even before he sang: this was a performance of true greatness, not only in the beautiful singing but in the exquisite playing: Drake managed that deceptively easy – sounding bass line, which so affectionately counterpoints the voice, and those repeated treble chords with the kind of tenderness, lack of ostentation and sense of dedication to the music which characterized this fine recital.

 

Melanie Eskenazi


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