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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Strauss, Britten, Wagner, Debussy, Rorem: Susan Bullock (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) Wigmore hall, 23 March, 2005 (AO)


The Wigmore Hall’s reputation is based, in part, on presenting carefully chosen new performers. Its famously well-informed audience sets it apart from “any other venue” and gives it a cutting edge. For this concert, the Hall was packed, filled with familiar faces: a sign that this canny audience knew something interesting was afoot.


Susan Bullock has recently made debuts at Munich, Frankfurt and Tokyo. She will be Elektra at La Scala soon, and will make her Covent Garden debut next season as Maria in Wozzeck. Susan Bullock is well established on the opera stage and has carved out a career as perhaps Britain's leading exponent of Wagner's music for dramatic soprano: she won the Ferrier Prize in 1984 so it is perhaps surprising that this recital marked her 'official' Wigmore Hall debut This concert gave an answer. Her voice is surprisingly mature and powerful, and above all, she shows real dramatic ability and the charismatic spark that marks a true communicator. This may have been a high profile performance before a notoriously discriminating audience, but she sailed through with such aplomb that she seemed totally at ease.


Bullock brought a lushness to Strauss’s Rote Rosen and Die erwachte Rose, lovingly lingering on words like “Sonnenwende” and “Träumen”, rolling her “r’s” just enough: “vom Rauschen der Blätter in grünen Hain” was positively delicious. She followed with Britten’s Poet’s Echo. Britten was no natural linguist. He wrote this on holiday with Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich, immersing himself, with their guidance, in the sounds of the Russian language, spoken and sung. This is fairly late Britten and the piano part is sparsely written. The voice soars expressively over the piano part, evoking the poet’s response to the stillness of nature. Bullock carried the legato beautifully, allowing her voice to reverberate subtly at the end of lines, blending into Martineau’s gentle playing. It will be interesting to hear this cycle performed later this season by Christiane Oelze and Julius Drake.


Then, the Wesendonck songs. From the first bars, “In der Kindheit”, Bullock created a sense of immediacy, as if she were telling a marvellous, secret story. With effortless grace, she let the long lines float, sensuously. Uncannily, she can combine a real feeling of intimacy with dramatic colour. At one moment she sings about the heady perfume of the silent plants in the greenhouse where Wagner and Mme. Wesendonck might have trysted. The next, she declaims, soulfully, “Unsre Heimat is nicht hier!” It's not just the hothouse plants that pine, but the lovers too. These songs are so lovely that it can be tempting to play up their melodramatic potential, but Bullock steered well clear of sentimentality. As a Wagner specialist she must understand their place in the wider context of Wagner's work. She does not force her interpretation, but lets the beauty of the music unfold itself. “Sag, welch wunderbare Träume......daß sie nicht wie leere Schäume”, each luscious open vowel lovingly shaped, breathing into and holding the repeated “Träume”.


Enthusiastic applause burst forth even before she sang after the interval. For a debut, a singer needs to show ability in a variety of material and languages, hence the Debussy songs. By most standards, Bullock was good, though these were not performed on quite the same level as her Wesendonck. Nonetheless, they were an intelligent choice, showing a solid knowledge of repertoire and interpretation. What inspiration to pair Wagner's “Im Treibhaus” with Debussy's “De Fleurs”, about “sorrow's hothouse”! And then, bridging the Romantic to the modern Rorem songs to come, Debussy's “Dimanche”, a vibrant, ironic take on commuting, trains and suburban weekends.


Rorem's songs are miniatures, but sparsely, precisely written, though tightly packed with action. They present a completely different sound world to Strauss and Wagner. Bullock seemed totally at ease with them, showing great flair. Again, her choice of “Alleluia”, an early Rorem tour de force, was intelligent. The same word is sung over and over, in myriad ways, and different styles - what a vehicle for a debut to show what a singer is made of. But it was in her second encore that Bullock proved what a distinctive performing persona she can be. No credits were given but this was probably a Malcolm Martineau piece – he is a brilliant writer as well as pianist. “I'm tone deaf” is a hilariously funny satire about a singer making a career even though she can't “tell a key from a clef”. It bursts with in jokes, references to Damien Hirst and safe work with the BBC. Nonetheless, it is full of technical challenges, a deceptively demanding work that requires a singer to experiment with many different sounds – including deliberately off key notes, sudden swoops of volume, exaggerated vibrato and changes of tempi. Carrying this off well calls for a singer with wit as well as technique, and a sense of drama and warmth. It was wonderful. The Wigmore Hall audience were pleased. Bullock received several huge bouquets, much fancier than the usual ones most singers get



Anne Ozorio

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