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S & H Concert Review

Purcell, Wagner, Wolf – Christine Schäfer, Eric Schneider – Wigmore Hall, 20th February 2003 (ME)


It’s the big day on Saturday – exactly 100 years since the death of Hugo Wolf, and the Wigmore will mark the occasion with a performance of the Spanish songbook by Christine Schäfer and Matthias Goerne; each singer also gets a solo recital, Goerne in an all-Wolf programme on Monday and Schäfer with this mixed offering to begin the commemoration.

Christine Schäfer first came to many people’s attention with some superb recordings of Schubert lieder in the Hyperion series, and I still consider her ‘Wiegenlied’ and ‘Der Gott und die Bajadere’ to be amongst the finest performances available, so my expectations were high – sadly, she was not in good voice on this occasion, and seemed to take a long time to recover from an awkward beginning. I can’t imagine why anyone should have advised her to sing Purcell – was it expected, in such a setting? I would never suggest that singers should not extend their repertoire, nor that some singers are ‘wrong’ for some songs, but these performances simply did her no justice at all; in ‘Music for a while’ her pronunciation of ‘shall’ as ‘shell’ and her lumpy phrasing did not open the concert on a happy note, and she did not have the breath control for ‘Sweeter than roses’ which entirely lacked the requisite ardour and excitement.

There was plenty of ardour in Eric Schneider’s playing of his own arrangement of the prelude to ‘Tristan und Isolde’, although the overall impression was lugubrious rather than passionate. It was a lovely touch to go straight from this to the ‘Wesendonk-Lieder’ without a break, reflecting the strong links between the two works. Schäfer was much more secure in these songs, although moments such as ‘Tauschen mit der Erdensonne’ and ‘Solche Schmerzen mir Natur!’ lacked the ecstatic surge of an ideal performance. There is obviously more to Schäfer’s interpretation then she was able to give us on this occasion, since hers is a voice and a temperament which should move us with such phrases as the rising one on the word ‘Engeln’, which here fell rather flat.

Her selection of Wolf’s Goethe settings did give some indication of what a great soprano she really is, and allowed Schneider to cover himself in glory with every nachspiel. After a highly dramatic ‘Gretchen vor dem Andachtsbild der Mater Dolorosa’ it was the second song, ‘Sankt Nepomuks Vorabend’, which showed both singer and pianist at their finest, with Schneider’s sublime evocation of the ‘Glocke Glöckchen’. In ‘Frech und froh I’ it was again the nachspiel which gave the purest delight. Four Mörike settings closed the scheduled part of the recital, with ‘An eine Äolsharfe’ superbly sung and played – the repetition of ‘süssern’ affording a taste of how warm and shapely Schäfer’s phrasing can be, and the playing of the very demanding postlude of the kind which made one want to stand up and cheer.

There was plenty of cheering by this welcoming audience, rewarded with three encores, amongst which Dido’s Lament was as much a mistake as ‘Sweeter than roses’, but ‘Er ist’s’ was a wonderfully exultant performance, with ‘Dich hab ich vernommen!’ making us feel that we had ‘caught her sound’ at last.

Melanie Eskenazi

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