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S & H Recital Review

Director’s Festival Gala Concert, Wigmore Hall, Saturday May 10th 2003 (ME)



One might think that there would be little left to say about this event: the culmination of the ‘Director’s Festival’ marking the close of William Lyne’s 37 – year tenure as the Hall’s director had been given so much advance hype by the musical establishment that a sense of surfeit should surely have crept in. Why, a ‘Times’ critic even went so far as to say that he’d learnt more from eavesdropping on audience conversations here than he’d absorbed during his university course (well, we knew one of them would come clean one day, didn’t we) – and that was just one of several opportunities to fill columns with pleasantly superior musings about this wonderful hall and its truly remarkable director. In the event, there proved to be plenty to say, not all of it predictable, and any sense of complacency gave way very early on to disappointment, since no fewer than five of the scheduled performers were indisposed: one may imagine Lyne’s regret that they included two of his most beloved singers of the present generation, Matthias Goerne and Thomas Quasthoff. It was left to the remaining artists, augmented by a few gallant stand-ins to provide a demonstration of Lyne’s excellent taste and the hall’s deep sense of tradition.

It was inevitable that the performers would comprise a mixture of generations from the very young, represented by performers such as the Belcea Quartet, through the well established such as Ian Bostridge and on to the veteran such as Anne Evans, the last group providing this – inevitably, given the ticket prices and scarcity of same – predominantly mature audience with ample opportunity for reminiscence. Those oldies can still cut it, though, and most of them gave the younger generation something to think about. In Part One, although it was a sad loss to be deprived of Goerne’s singing of Schumann’s Kerner Lieder, there was still a great deal to relish, especially from Olaf Baer and Angelika Kirchschlager, neatly representing the younger and older generations of singers.

In Quasthoff’s absence it fell to the mezzo to be the first voice of the evening, and she sounded understandably nervous in ‘An die Musik’ but still managed to make this well loved piece sound fresh: with the Brahms folk songs she was entirely at her ease, and gave ample demonstration of why she is regarded as the mezzo soprano in this repertoire. Kirchschlager seems to make it a speciality to perform songs which are otherwise neglected, and ‘Da unten im Tale’ is a perfect example: she sang this seemingly artless little song with the most moving intonation imaginable, and gave expression to every nuance of its bitter message – Julius Drake accompanied her superbly.

Olaf Baer has been a prominent Lieder singer for nearly twenty years now, and I have never heard him sing as beautifully as he did tonight: I have tended to regard him as ‘school-of-DFD-very-pleasant-nothing-special’ in the past, but on this showing he moved me as never before. He was of course given two absolute gems, Wolf’s ‘Benedeit die sel’ge Mutter’ and Schubert’s ‘Die Taubenpost’ but he sang them as though they both needed passionate advocacy: one might wish for greater anguish in a line like ‘Ach, der Wahnsinn fast mich an!’ but the Wolf was otherwise wonderfully performed, every phrase informed with the most exact yet loving art. Lyne programmed ‘Taubenpost’ in honour of Baer’s singing of the three Schubert cycles in 1988, ‘…one of the most memorable events of my directorship…’ and Baer did not disappoint him. Despite one awkward moment when he and Malcolm Martineau parted company for a bar or two, this was Lieder singing of a very high order, the phrasing exemplary, the diction precise, the interpretation emotionally involving without coyness, those matchless closing lines sung with as much tenderness as I’ve ever heard. There are still plenty of seats left for Tuesday’s recital, in which Baer will sing an enticing programme of Brahms, Schubert, Wolf and Frank Martin – highly recommended.

The first part of the concert ended with a somewhat indifferent performance of ‘Auf dem Strom’ by Ian Bostridge, replete with dramatic vocal gesture but lacking in word sensitivity and subtlety: Steven Isserlis provided sweetly flowing lines in accompaniment, the ‘cello sounding at least as noble as the horn can. Bostridge was again much in evidence in the second part, singing Hahn’s ‘Tyndaris’ eloquently but giving a disappointing rendition of one of Lyne’s favourite Schubert songs, ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ – again, plenty of drama but little sense of that aching melancholy with which it should be infused. The most impressive performance in this part was by James Bowman, his Oberon just as unearthly, poetic and mesmerizing as it once was at Glyndebourne – what a pity he was given so little to sing here.

There was plenty more to delight lovers of twentieth, and indeed twenty-first century music in this part, with a fine performance of Finzi’s ‘To Lizbie Browne’ from Gerald Finley and Julius Drake, who also gave the premiere of Julian Philips’ highly evocative setting of Emily Dickinson’s ‘There is a morn by men unseen’ which had been specially commissioned for this concert: an excellent way to demonstrate that the Wigmore looks to the present and future as well as the past. The Belcea Quartet gave a superb performance of Webern’s ‘Langsamer Satz’ to open this part, followed by Paul Agnew with Dowland’s ‘Come again: sweet love doth now invite’ which he sang with elegant, supple grace: then came Mark Wilde with another courtly poet, Richard Lovelace, this time set by William Denis Browne, followed by Christopher Maltman’s glorious singing of Vaughan Williams’ ‘The splendour falls.’

Dame Felicity Lott sang Fauré’s ‘Les roses d’Ispahan’ and ‘Die Forelle’ with her accustomed skills in characterization and idiomatic phrasing, and Lisa Milne had the privilege of performing one of the neglected gems of the song repertoire, Hahn’s exquisite ‘A Chloris’ given in a dramatic, operatic style which seemed to me to be inappropriate for this piece, which can be so moving if sung with unaffected directness – Malcolm Martineau provided eloquent accompaniment. In contrast to all this lush vocal music Dmitri Alexeev gave performances of three Chopin waltzes that were as distant from the usual empty showiness as could possibly be imagined, rich in nuance and elegantly virtuosic.

The third part was generally more frivolous in tone, featuring such delights as Simon Crawford-Phillips and Philip Moore enjoying themselves with ‘Souvenirs de Bayreuth,’ Roger Vignoles stepping out of the role of discreet accompanist and into that of singer with an hilarious ‘message from Sarah Walker’ addressed of course to Lyne, a ‘Gendarmes’ duet’ (Offenbach) from Bostridge and Maltman which was sheer, uproarious joy, and a not-too-cringeworthy ‘Three Little maids from School’ by Lott, Ann Murray and Catherine Wyn-Rogers, who also sang ‘I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls’ quite superbly. Dame Anne Evans contributed a moving ‘David of the white rock’ and Diana Montague a very fine ‘So in Love’ but the ‘star’ of this segment was undoubtedly Christine Brewer, who not only sang ‘Dich, teure Halle’ with breathtaking skill and superb drama, but actually managed to move me very much with Bob Merrill’s ‘Mira’ (from ‘Carnival’) a feat which I would not previously have imagined possible. Her BBC Lunchtime recital this Monday is eagerly awaited.

The musical part of the evening ended, appropriately, with the new director’s own arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Serenade to music’ in which sixteen singers, the violinist Anthony Marwood, Steven Isserlis, the Belcea Quartet and Roger Vignoles were directed by Matthew Best: sad though Lyne must have been not to have had all his favourites on stage, it certainly was a sight to see so many eminent names on this tiny platform, and they performed this piece with all the fervour appropriate to the occasion. Speeches and presentations followed, the most memorable moments of which were provided by the vulnerable figure of Lyne himself, never the most confident of public speakers, thanking his staff and the Wigmore’s regular audience for providing him with the support he needed to fashion this little place into what Barbara Bonney (who was onstage but did not sing) once called ‘The greatest concert hall in the world.’


Melanie Eskenazi



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