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S & H Masterclass Report


PLG Masterclass with Christa Ludwig, Wigmore Hall, 12th February 2003 (MB)


 


Anna Dennis/John Reid soprano/piano
Dorothe Ingenfeld/Hendrik Heilmann mezzo-soprano/piano
Adam Green/Simon Lester baritone/piano
Matthias Haussmann/Caroline Jaya-Ratnam baritone/piano
Jared Holt/Simon Lepper baritone/piano
Christian Immler/Silvia Fraser baritone/piano
Jonas Samuelsson/Alexis Delgado baritone/piano


 

Perhaps it was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s scheduled attendance at these masterclasses which meant five of the seven singers were baritones, but in the event flu prevented him coming to London. His replacement, the eminent mezzo, Christa Ludwig, took over and wryly pointed out after the seven singers had performed their single lieder for the audience how depressing the songs had been so early in the morning. Well, that comes with the territory one could argue, especially when so many of the baritones chose Wolf or Schubert.

There could be little doubt after their first songs that all of the singers taking part possessed voices of a high calibre, even if some impressed more than others, and even if some displayed much greater artistic integrity than others. Matthias Haussmann, for example, had already shown in Wolf’s ‘Wer sein holdes Lieb verloren’ a deeply resonant, almost scorched, sound, broad in both colour and dynamics. Impeccable diction, allied with an equal tonal weight, gave his performance a tender poignancy. Yet, as Ludwig demonstrated by bringing greater expressive range to his diction, and by refining his use of piano to crescendo at certain points, and, most crucially, by developing the notes more, especially by lengthening the fermata, Haussmann was able to interpret the moods of the song more convincingly. His subsequent performance of the song was almost ideal.

Jared Holt’s performance of Schubert’s stark ‘Nachtstück’ was largely overburdened by the power of this baritone’s voice, almost bordering on a bass. This New Zealander is capable of generating an extraordinarily dark – and deep – sound yet the voice is somewhat lacking in colour and intensity and his consonants tend to sound nasal rather than natural. As Ludwig pointed out to his pianist, the top notes are not always the most important and this also goes for Holt’s somewhat pedantic phrasing which attempted to attach a greater significance to the higher notes than the lower notes, as if compensating for the darker, more granitic, tone of his voice. In part, his performance required a better understanding of the language, but as Ludwig noted this could be achieved by rounding the vowels better, using crescendos more judiciously and developing the legato line.

Dorothe Ingenfeld chose Mahler’s ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ Like most of the singers, an unwillingness to use sufficient rubato marred a performance that was vocally beautiful but interpretatively unfamiliar. Whilst Ingenfeld has a poised, even tone, and the lower voice is more stable than the upper voice, her concept of what this Mahlerian ode to joy is about largely eluded her. Ludwig encouraged her to sing with a greater rustic simplicity; the result was that Ingenfeld brought out the folk elements which in her run-through had been largely missing.

Christian Immler, by far the brightest toned baritone of the five, sang Wolf’s ‘Der Tambour’ with impeccable phrasing and a near-full understanding of the text. With a voice that borders on a low tenor he had no difficulty whatsoever meeting the demands of Wolf’s scoring yet if there was a fault with his singing it was that he missed some of the more graphic elements of the song. For example, when Wolf writes ‘schnarchen’ Immler was insufficiently gestural enough to convey the picturesque sound quality required. A similar lack of drama, albeit more magnified, inflected Anna Dennis’ performance of one of Schumann’s ‘Liederkreis’ Op.39. This soprano has a tendency to grab her notes and above the stave her voice is rushed and insecure. Often too shrill, often too loud, and often too emotionally cold her performance was both forced and contrived (although only at the end of the morning did we learn that she was a last minute replacement for an indisposed singer which may have explained this). Ideally, these Schumann songs require a richer, more opulent voice – their varied moods almost demand it – and Dennis was, I think, ill advised to have chosen one of them. Ludwig worked hard to encourage an extra degree of drama and mania from her performance, and almost succeeded in encouraging the singer to float the development from piano to crescendo more naturally but ultimately Dennis didn’t show enough of her soul to make the performance a convincing one.

The British baritone Adam Green chose two lieder from Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.24 and gave extraordinarily mature and weighty performances of both. Although his German is slightly inaudible (a problem he shared with all the non-German singers, except the Swedish baritone, Jonas Samuelsson), and there were clear problems with his diction, he displayed an uncanny ability to grip the listener. The most beautifully balanced of all the baritones, his voice has a weighty lyricism to it, which combined with the velvety timbre of his tone, and intense legato line, gave unusual colour to his interpretations. Ludwig worked on controlling his crescendos, which had a tendency to be matched by an equally wide vibrato, but by and large his was the most impressive performance of the morning.

The final singer, the Swedish baritone, Jonas Samuelsson, also happened to be the most charismatic. A lack of stage presence was something which all these singers had in common, until Samuelsson appeared on stage. Giving a rapt, and intense, performance of one of Schubert’s Goethe lieder one was aware of a very expressionist timbre, although it is possible to argue the voice was rather on the small side. Ludwig achieved a minor miracle in making him lengthen the fermata on the word ‘blick’, encouraging him to make the voice reach the back of the hall with thrilling results.

All in all, it should be said that Christa Ludwig succeeded in getting all of these singers to yield to suggestions that improved the quality of their singing. The results were audibly palpable. Her manner – partly dry, partly humorous – worked well, and with the help of a Wigmore audience schooled in German (in which other concert hall would you get that?) communication between teacher and singer, and teacher and audience, was never a problem. Unwieldy though these masterclasses can sometimes be (and this one lasted almost 3 hours without an interval) their value is unquestionable.

Marc Bridle

 

 

 


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