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S & H Recital Review

Wolf, Schubert, Poulenc, Strauss, Wagner: Violeta Urmana, Jan Philip Schulze. Wigmore Hall, September 11th 2003 (ME)


A beautiful voice is never enough, even when it’s allied to a winning stage presence and stunning looks, and no more vivid evidence for this could be provided than Thursday’s recital, by a mezzo soprano whose operatic performances have had the critics in ecstasies. The voice is very rich in tone, supple in phrasing and accurate in projection, but the sensitivity to language, diversity of expression and intimacy in communication necessary for a recital were not present for much of the evening.

Her well balanced programme began with Wolf, appropriately in the year in which we commemorate his anniversary, but the year also means that those very songs have had plenty of airings of late, most of them affording greater musical pleasure than was to be had here. ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’ might seem an ideal vehicle for this opulent voice: the song is, after all, redolent of erotic languor and fulfilment, but the interpretation here was cheerful rather than passionate, any quality of the latter kind being supplied by the pulsating chords of Jan Philip Schulze’s piano. In the wonderful ‘Geh, Geliebter, geh jetzt’ it was again the piano which impressed, with that delicate ‘verklingend’ postlude suggesting the beloved’s departure.

Schubert shared many characteristics with Keats, one of the few regrettable ones being that neither of them could leave long, boring narratives alone despite the fact that each man knew perfectly well where his true genius lay. Listening to Schubert’s setting of ‘Cronnan,’ one of the dreariest products of Macpherson’s pseudo-Gaelic outpourings, is a bit like reading all of ‘Endymion:’ you tell yourself that you ought to like it, but you really can’t, and despite occasional felicities such as the beautifully evocative vorspiel, it passes over you in a pleasant haze. I suppose one should commend performers for ‘taking it on,’ but Schubert did write another 150 or so songs suitable for the female voice… both Urmana and Schulze gave it plenty of conviction, but it still did not provide her with the vehicle she needed to show her voice at its best.

The delicate traceries of Poulenc were given competent but hardly inspiring performances, whilst the romantic ecstasies of Strauss found Urmana in full but insufficiently full-blown voice. ‘Cäcilie’ is of course an ideal song to end a programme, but anyone hoping to experience the kind of thrill which, say, Renée Fleming induces in this music would have been disappointed with this final piece, since although it was sung with musicality and drive the essential rapture was missing – that rapture of course not just stemming from the tone of the voice but from a deep understanding of the relationship between text and music.

Wagner’s ‘Wesendonk-Lieder’ gave a much better impression of Urmana’s talents: here, she was able to use her velvety middle register to best advantage, and although there was little in the way of transporting moments, her singing of lines like ‘Meinen Geist nun himmelwärts!’ and ‘Sag, welch wunderbare Träume’ provided the authentic note of soaring ecstasy which the rest of the performance lacked. Strauss, Rachmaninov and Gluck provided the encores, amongst which the wonderful ‘Adieu’ from ‘Iphigénie’ was sung not only with rich and lovely tone but with the kind of fervent commitment which had seemed curiously lacking during much of what had gone before.


Melanie Eskenazi



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