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S & H Recital Review

Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano), Jean Lemaire (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 16 April 2002 (PQ)
Songs by Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Brahms and Strauss


An undeniable element of curiosity was probably the most potent ingredient of the atmosphere, heavy with expectation, which hung over Wigmore Hall in the minutes prior to this recital. I doubt anyone had come simply to hear a lieder recital, well-programmed and packed with great music though it was. While most of the audience had come to renew musical acquaintance with Herbert von Karajan’s doyenne of dramatic sopranos, and several simply to watch a diva and adore, only those completely unstruck by stardom could help entertaining a prurient curiosity about whether she would be embarrassingly past her vocal prime. As though she were well aware of those who would gleefully ‘find her out’, Anna Tomowa-Sintow carried herself with elegance through the published programme and then, once only the fans were left, reeled off a series of encores that showed she could still throw the notes around with abandoned joy.

Even so, the evening could have been a grisly experience without that elegance and undimmed dramatic presence. Her last London appearance to my knowledge was as the Marschallin at the Royal Opera House two years ago, and in terms of control and production if nothing else, her voice betrays a decline since then. The four Tchaikovsky songs could almost have been written for the character of Strauss’s beautiful but disillusioned grande dame, sighing as they all do over love lost and remembered. Obvious breaks in her passagio – low and high registers still project fully, if with extra wobble – did not hinder enjoyment of her steady phrasing (though her breathing gained ragged edges over the recital’s course) and musical intelligence. ‘To forget so soon’ had all the wistfulness of a latterday Tatiana, with authentically bright tone; ‘He loved me so much’ brought more cherishable word-painting catching the poem’s ambivalent girlishness and regret.

The occasional loss of pitch became rather more noticeable in Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder (not Wesendonk: Mathilde, their dedicatee, carelessly lost her C almost throughout the Wigmore’s programme): Tomowa-Sintow seized the last lines of Stehe’s Still first two verses with apparent relief that she had got that far. ‘Schmerzen’ was perhaps the most successful from a purely vocal point of view, as its demands for melodrama rather than moment-to-moment sensitivity are still well within her capabilities. The cycle’s two ‘Tristan’ songs, ‘Im Treibhaus’ and ‘Traume’, carried their heavy musical baggage with intensity almost despite the comparatively prosaic original piano scoring. The opening to ‘Im Triebhaus’ eventually became the Prelude to Act 3, and having heard the strings of the Royal Opera tear open that music of raw wounds the previous night, Lemaire’s relaxed way with the rising motif of pain was disconcerting to say the least. Tomowa-Sintow’s fastish speeds for these songs were probably chosen more from necessity than preference, but she was able to float the lines rather than gasp them as a result.

True to her abilities in music which demands heft, Tomowa-Sintow was most successful in the overtly Wagnerian setting by Brahms of Heine’s poem ‘Death is cool night’. The text contains overtones of Tristan which Brahms appears to echo in his setting, and she lavished some of her most lustrous tone and controlled breathing of the evening upon it. The other, lighter songs especially the folkloric ‘Sunday’ were often managed rather than sung, and were also afflicted by tempos which suited the singer rather than the music: Lemaire was unable to articulate the rushing undercurrent of notes in ‘Vain Serenade’ and missed some out altogether in an effort to keep up with his singer. The concluding group of Strauss fared better, if one discounts ‘Morgen’ which she would have done better to omit. I doubt that Tomowa-Sintow could still sing a top C at nine in the morning as Karajan once enthused, but she swept through the whirlwind declaration of passion that is Cäcilie with an ardour that utterly eclipsed Reneé Fleming's recent po-faced perfection at the Barbican and rekindled memories of Marschallins recent and long gone. At least for the moment, Tomowa-Sintow is doing a pretty good job of winding the clocks back.

Peter Quantrill

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