It is seldom that the Wigmore Hall's brochure devotes
an entire column to fulsome praise of a singer, and I assume it was
the claims made by such august agents as the 'Times' and 'Gramophone'
('..startling and revelatory....a technique second to none..etc. etc.
etc.) which encouraged a full house for Werner Güra's recital,
although the Wigmore has taken its time to open its doors to him. He
does not divulge his age but I would guess that he must be around 33
(that is, extremely close to the likes of Goerne and Bostridge). His
recording of 'Die Schöne Müllerin' was the basis of the above
rhapsodies, and for this recital he selected an entirely safe programme
of well-loved songs.
'An die ferne Geliebte' demonstrated his style; exuding
bonhomie and efficiency, without superfluous gesture, and with excellent
projection of the tone, even to the critics' seats at the back. The
voice is of medium weight, with some pleasing baritonal inflexions and
frequently successful incursions into the passagio, but Gura's
is, at least on this hearing, a very, very modest talent indeed. I will
not presume to compare him to singers closer to his age, but those who
were present at Marcus Ullmann's fairly recent debut, to take one obvious
example, were conscious that they were hearing a young singer of real
promise, with something individual to offer.
The fact that neither I nor anyone else I spoke to
could say that of Güra, may have had to do with what are seemingly
two small faults, but ones which can loom large in this context. For
a native German speaker, his diction is poor, with such words as 'Zeit'
coming out as 'site' and a general lack of bite in the enunciation of
the language; the English tenor John Mark Ainsley, for example, puts
Güra to shame in such songs as 'Wilkommen und Abschied' where crispness
of diction is essential. Furthermore, either he was over-confident or
simply had underestimated the level of preparation required for such
a venue, since he made several errors; perhaps he would benefit from
having the score in front of him.
There were many lovely moments in the cycle, principally
during "Wo die Berge so blau" where both singer and pianist were successful
in suggesting the contrasts between idyllic Nature and tormented lover,
and 'Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder' where they caught just the right
tone of seriousness and grandeur in the phrasing. However, both singing
and playing in general lacked a sense of unity; Berner seemed to have
his own ideas about tempi, for example, not all of which he had shared
with the singer, and his playing was short on rhythmical sense, particularly
in 'Es kehret der Maien, es blühet de Au.' Güra's technique,
particularly in matters such as breath control, seemed to me to need
work; at the close of 'Leichte Segler in den Höhen' it should be
possible to make a seamless link with the first line of 'Diese Wolken,'
and when I heard him take a great gulp after "sehen" I thought that
he would do so, but the line was broken up by another lumpy breath.
The audience was not happy after the Beethoven, and
even less so after the ensuing Schubert group. These are songs which
everyone who loves Lieder knows intimately, and of course it is always
a joy to hear them, but Güra needs to work on them a lot more intensively.
'Schäfers Klagelied' was pleasantly sung, but 'Erster Verlust'
lacked the requisite poignancy, and whereas 'An Mignon' did achieve
that Schubertian sense of eagerness and longing, both 'Auf dem See'
and 'Der Musensohn' were very much affected by poor diction and sloppy
phrasing. 'Der Sänger' was embarrassing, and 'Wilkommen und Abschied'
was not helped by Berner's seeming to want to gallop in the opposite
direction from the singer.
Those who were less than pleased with the first half
received some consolation after the interval, however. 'Dichterliebe'
is, of course, a fail-safe piece; no competent singer can really disappoint
with Schumann's most loved work, and Güra's performance gave much
pleasure. 'Im wunderschönen Monat Mai' showed his frank, enthusiastic
style to perfection, and 'Wenn ich in deine Augen seh' was beautifully
phrased. Unfortunately much of the cycle was affected by poor diction,
most obviously during 'Ich will meine Seele tauchen' where he did nothing
with that crucial line 'In wunderbar süsser Stund;' I'm not asking
for Fischer-Dieskau style word pointing, but there has to be some slight
acknowledgement that 'süsser' is a special word in that context.
My notes on this cycle mainly consist of such comments as 'Do something
with it!' 'Allnächtlich in Traume' was sung with perfect legato,
and the penultimate song did evoke some of the desired aching and anguish;
I discerned real sensitivity at 'Ach, könnt ich dorthin kommen.'
The audience was much kinder to him after this, and
two encores were offered, 'Die Stille' which was sung with charm but
lost something with his substitution of 'Berge' for 'Sterne,' and 'Mein'
which did evoke the young man's ardour and all-too-temporary confidence
in his love. This is not by any means a great talent, but at its best
his singing is attractive in tone and sensitive in style; at present,
both he and his enthusiastic and individual accompanist seem to me a
little too confident, and a little too general, in dealing with these
delicate and deceptively complex miracles which we call Lieder.