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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, Four Impromptus D935, ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ D795. Peter Schreier, András Schiff: Wigmore Hall, Tuesday April 1st 2003. (ME)

This ‘Director’s Festival’ recital brought together two of William Lyne’s favourite artists in an established partnership which, nevertheless, managed to convey fresh insights. I don’t think any apology is needed for beginning with the pianist on this occasion, since Schiff’s playing of the Impromptus provided as perfect a Schubertian experience as his deeply sympathetic accompanying: the programming may have seemed a little strange in that the first half was necessarily short and the interval truncated (allowing the hall’s unflappable stage manager to add yet another gem to his trove of admonitions – ‘Ladies, whatever it is you do in there, please do it quickly’ his previous gems including the immortal ‘If you should feel the urge to cough { long pause} – don’t.’ ) but such was the poetic quality of the playing that no one minded, and no one felt it an imposition to have to wait for the evening’s central work and artist. No matter how often one has tortured, and been tortured by them in those dreaded piano exams, the Impromptus triumph over familiarity in performances such as the one Schiff gave us, with the lovely second, in A flat major, played with such tenderness and natural ease that I wanted to hear it again, at once.

Schiff provided the most powerful musical pleasure in ‘Die schöne Müllerin,’ his sensitivity and deep understanding of the music so poignantly clear in each song, and his collaborative quality so much needed and so expertly given to the singer. It would be simply silly to attempt to pretend that Schreier’s voice is anything but threadbare in tone these days, although I’d be willing to bet that there are plenty of ladies of a certain age who would try to do so: intrinsic beauty of tone has never been his speciality anyway (amazing to read in the notes that he has been praised firstly for ‘the beauty of his voice’) and one hardly expects mellifluousness from any singer in his sixty-eighth year: but then, one hardly expects an interpretation of freshness and originality either, nor does one dare to hope that a singer so eminent and so lauded can have learned so much from younger practitioners of his art that his performance is a completely modern one – and yet that was what we got, and more.

What I loved most about Schreier’s singing, and Schiff’s playing here, was that they did not go in for any of that ‘Austrian gemütlichkeit’ stuff which seems to be the only way some people, both performers and critics, can cope with this cycle. Gemütlichkeit is fine, I have no problem with it in its place, but it has no place in a cycle which ends, not with the protagonist striding on (as in ‘Winterreise’) but with the self-destruction of his body in the stream that has been part of his livelihood, some eight songs after the destruction of his emotional self. Schreier and Schiff understood this perfectly, and their interpretation was never hearty, never merely delightful, and never cloyingly sweet. Even in ‘Das Wandern,’ we are not in the world of a carefree youth bounding along towards a bucolic sunset but a troubled man who senses that his approach to life is not to be a comfortable one. In this song, as in ‘Der Jäger,’ Schreier lost his line but was saved both times by Schiff, heroically so in the latter, so much so that one barely registered that mistakes had been made.

Schreier’s renowned sensitivity to words was evident throughout: in ‘Wohin’ he may have over-emphasised ‘Das kann kein Rauschen sein’ but he more than made up for that with as subtle a final stanza as could be desired, and ‘Am Feierabend’ was a model of careful depiction of feeling, with a sense of real frustration breaking out at ‘Jede Knappe tut mir’s nach’ and just enough pressure on ‘Allen’ in the last line to remind you of the speaker’s forlorn realization that he has not been singled out by the ‘liebe Mädchen.’ ‘Der Neugierige’ was perfection, the hesitant, delicate vorspiel so lovingly recreating the tentative questioning of the youth and ‘Die ganze Welt’ so finely phrased.

It was ‘Mein!’ and ‘Pause’ which really marked this out as a special interpretation, with the former no mere exultation in an entirely illusory possession but the effusion of a troubled and deceived individual, and the latter completely understood as the turning point of the whole cycle, with Schiff’s playing so wonderfully suggestive of the lute. Schreier takes a similar view of ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’ to that of Goerne, which is to say that this is not a merry little ditty but a slightly sinister depiction of the would-be lover’s feelings, and both singer and pianist had understood that such lines as ‘Dann hab ich’s Grün erst gern!’ are ironic rather than playful.

‘Trockne Blumen’ showed a masterly sense of the subtleties of Müller’s lines and Schubert’s setting of them: Schreier managed to move us deeply with ‘Ach, Tränen machen / Nicht maiengrün,/ Machen tote Liebe/ Nicht wieder blühn’ yet never descended into mawkishness. The final ‘lullaby’ was as bittersweet as could be desired – this was no cradle song but a heartbreaking farewell to lost hopes and potential, marred only by the inexplicable noisy watch-winding of a lady behind me, a jarring noise which also interrupted the entirely appropriate silence which concluded this remarkable recital.


Melanie Eskenazi



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