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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, Loewe: Thomas Quasthoff, Justus Zeyen, Wigmore Hall, May 15th 2002 (ME)


‘Mit Singen kann er lachen / Und selig weinen machen!’ He certainly can, although in this recital much of the laughter and blissful tears came in the second half, during which Quasthoff and Zeyen gave us performances of five Loewe ballads and three encores which it would be difficult to imagine being equalled in their combination of charm, vocal prowess and powerful characterization.

The first half of the concert was composed of a selection of mostly well – loved Schubert songs to poems by Seidl, Schulze and Goethe; they presented a very similar group at last season’s Schubertiade, and I have reviewed the performance here. It is in the nature of live music, of course, that every evening is different, and last night it seemed to me that Quasthoff was not singing with the same kind of commitment that he had displayed in Schwarzenberg; indeed, there were times when I felt that he was not as familiar with the songs as I would expect him to be, and his frequent use of the score in front of him impeded direct communication with the audience. ‘Sehnsucht’ was rather a strained beginning, and it was not until ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ that we could really hear what this singer and accompanist can do; that poignant key change which still brings tears to one’s eyes even after the five hundredth hearing, was achieved with subtle grace, and the tone of both voice and piano at ‘Doch auf der Himmel Boden steht!’ was as beautiful as could be desired.

There were times during parts of the programme where singer and pianist did not achieve their accustomed unity, most notably in ‘Bei dir allein,’ but the performance of ‘Im Frühling’ was very fine. This evocation of the contrast between the bleakness of the present and the exquisite nature of remembered joy was sung and played with sensitivity and intimacy, although there were lines where I felt that almost too exaggerated tempi had been chosen. This, indeed, was something I noticed often, in that lines seemed to be pulled about by the singer in a rather wayward fashion, and this may have contributed to what I heard as a lack of colour in the voice; the tone seemed not to possess its familiar nobility or burnished quality, although this observation relates only to the first half, since the Ballads which comprised the second allowed Quasthoff to display his great skills as a narrator and interpreter of dramatic incident.

Loewe’s ballads are not very often performed, and one can see why; apart from their length, they present daunting challenges to any singer or pianist, but on this occasion we were treated to renditions of these eerie narratives that were as gripping as anyone could desire. ‘Der Nöck’ tells the tale of the spirit who taught mortals to sing and was thereby promised redemption, and Quasthoff’s performance of it was stunning, his long – spun lines in the narrative – ‘Und atmend horcht die Nachtigall’ contrasting with his pleading at ‘Komm wieder, Nöck, du singst so schön.’ The gruesome ‘Edward’ was equally gripping, sung and played with tremendous force and fervour; Quasthoff’s characterization of the lines was masterly, especially in the son’s harsh ‘Die Welt is gross, lass sie betteln drin’ and the passionate damning of ’Fluch will each lassen…..’

‘Tom der Reimer’ is probably the most popular of Loewe’s ballads, and it is clearly a piece very close to Quasthoff’s heart; it was not difficult to see him in both the roles of enraptured poet and bewitching Elf Queen, since he presented both with equal wit and empathy. The arching lines at ‘Er küsste sie, sie küsste ihn, Ein Vogel sang im Eschenbaum’ were remarkable for the ecstatic tone of the voice and the accompanying rippling of the piano, and the narrative unfolded with mesmerizing pathos. ‘Nun bist du mein, nun zieh mit mir, Nun bist du mein auf sieben Jahr’ sings the Elf Queen to the poet, and so we were, and many of us would quite probably have been willing to follow him into that greenwood for seven years.

Three encores followed, a lively, vividly characterized ‘Heidenröslein’ which Quasthoff informed us he would not introduce because, he said rather slyly, ‘You are of course the most educated audience…………’ a mischievous ‘Die Forelle,’ and finally ‘Danny Boy.’ My distaste for what might be called ‘non – classical’ encores being well known, a friend waggishly remarked afterwards that ‘He sang ‘Danny Boy’ just for you,’ and indeed, as the first few notes sounded, I had felt my husband’s hand on my arm – not in a romantic gesture for once, but, he said, to keep me from leaving. Had I done so (and who would dare, given that this singer is quite likely to call one back) I would have missed a treasurable performance; like John McCormack and Gerald Moore before them, Quasthoff and Zeyen lavished as much love and care upon this sentimental ballad as thought it had been by Mozart; Quasthoff’s inherently touching voice is perfect for the sweet melancholy of this song, and it called forth tears from many in the audience…… oh, all right, then – my throat did tighten up a little. So there.

Writers often say that audiences are ‘in the palm’ of a singer’s hand, and those of us so blest as to be in easy reach of the Wigmore Hall have now had that experience twice within six days, the other being Matthias Goerne’s recital on Friday, but what very different experiences these are. The palm of Goerne’s hand is sometimes a rather scary place to be; you know that you’re hearing a voice of unsurpassable beauty and unrivalled technical skill, that you’re learn a lot from being there, that you’ll emerge with a new approach to music you thought you already knew, but it’s also a bit of a white – knuckle ride into a world of such unique intensity that you sometimes fear for your – and his – safety. With Quasthoff, you simply feel warmly held by a uniquely affectionate spirit, and if the audience reaction on Wednesday was anything to go by, you find it hard to leave.

Melanie Eskenazi

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