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S & H Master Class Review

Brahms, ‘Liebesliederwalzer’ - Master class presented by Matthias Goerne, with Alexander Schmalcz: Emilie Pictet (soprano) Stefanie Irányi (mezzo soprano) Colin Balzer (tenor) Tyler Duncan (Baritone) Christian Chamorel, Volker Hiemeyer, piano. Wigmore Hall, May 4th 2004 (ME)


What are Master classes for? Well, in my case, I can cite one, or rather one series, which performed a very definite function: that of putting me off any notion of ever becoming a professional musician (in my case that would have been as an accompanist). One might say that Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s Master classes at the 1976 (I think) Edinburgh Festival, when I was a mere student, etched so sharply upon my mind the reality of what an accompanist’s life might be like, that, probably mercifully, I abandoned any such ambition there and then. The accompanist on those occasions was the wonderful Roger Vignoles, as calm and urbane now as he was then, and I realized, watching him during those stomach-churning hours at the Freemasons’ Hall, that only a complete character transplant could ever make me into the kind of pianist who could play with elegance and tenderness whilst enduring all that such a great diva – and I use the word in its correct sense – could inflict.

It was sobering to reflect that one of the participants in the present Master class, the luminous soprano Emilie Pictet, was born just 24 years ago – four years after my Schwarzkopf experience: fortunately Emilie did not have to endure much more than the odd ‘Weniger Sprechen!’ from Matthias Goerne, himself startlingly young at 36 to be conducting a Master class – yet, a master he surely is, ‘Ein Meistersinger’ if ever there was one, and during the course of this very long evening he gave ample evidence not only of his own vocal standing – every time he opened up his voice he blew everyone else off the platform, yet without remotely showing off, every example given being done with a spirit of helpfulness – but of the fact that a Master class like this one can serve not only to introduce promising singers to a ‘real audience,’ but to enlighten that audience with new insights into a very familiar work.

Goerne is an excellent teacher: above all, he understands the need to balance praise and censure, and each criticism was tempered with encouragement. In ‘O die Frauen’ the tenor and baritone began with a rather wooden sound, characterized by Goerne as being too contained, too staccato, too ‘old’ in style – by the end, they were sounding like Nicolai Gedda and Giuseppe Taddei, ‘Sehr schön’ as Goerne said, with a beautiful legato line as well as vivid characterization of the words. It is here that we see Goerne’s major concern: the marriage of fine legato, smooth without blandness, and alertness to meaning, acute without overstatement.

Particular attention was given to the characterization of ‘Ein kleiner, hübscher Vogel,’ in which Colin Balzer came in for plenty of detailed criticism ‘Sie sprecht zu gut…aber mehr legato…’ all of which he took with aplomb, especially since Goerne was finally able to praise him fulsomely – and rightly so, for this is a real talent to watch, a bright, gleaming tenor voice with an heroic edge, allied to a confident stage presence. Tyler Duncan seemed to struggle to please his teacher, but won through in the end – his voice is beautiful but perhaps on the soft side, and he needed to make his consonants crisper as well as avoiding having his tone covered by the soprano: he produced ringing tone in ‘Schlosser auf’ however, and showed himself a quick learner in ensemble: Goerne’s advice to the singers to really listen to each other and make the sound closer together was evidently well heeded by them all.

Alexander Schmalcz was on hand to give quiet yet purposeful advice to the young accompanists, and Goerne too had much to say to them, with plenty of well-earned praise. Goerne’s concern was clearly to encourage that elusive sense of a voice singing as though it is somehow arising naturally from the piano, as though both instruments are one, and this was achieved by the end of ‘An jeder Hand die Finger’ which Emilie sang very beautifully (after some advice about softening her consonants) and ‘Ihr schwarzen Augen’ which revealed Tyler at his best.

It was very easy to envisage this fine young quartet as the lovers in ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ with Stefanie’s mellow, dulcet tones and light verbal inflexions particularly ideal for Mozart roles: she was perhaps the most confident of the four, the least in need of tutelage, but like the others she responded gracefully and positively to Goerne’s suggestions. No need to ask what these particular Master classes are for – they are for students to learn, and to do so from one of the great Masters of our time, and along the way for an audience to absorb some of what has been taught in the furtherance of their own greater understanding.

The students will give a full performance of the ‘Liebesliederwalzer’ with some of Brahms’ solo songs, on Thursday, and the Master himself will give a recital of Beethoven (beginning with the sublime ‘Resignation’), Strauss and Mahler on Saturday – both concerts, of course, warmly recommended.



Melanie Eskenazi

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