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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Haydn, Grieg, Brahms, Poulenc, Liszt:
Angelika Kirchschlager, Helmut Deutsch, Wigmore Hall, 23 April 2005 (ME)

Angelika Kirchschlager is now a much loved Wigmore regular, presenting well thought out, quite challenging programmes which are mercifully free of any whiff of dubious ‘nicky nacky noo-ness,’ otherwise dubiously known as ‘charm.’ She announces her seriousness as soon as she takes the platform in a sombre black dress perhaps as well suited to a postulant as a recitalist, and her choice of music preserves this mood.

It’s quite brave for someone who is not a native English speaker to begin a programme with a group of Haydn, since ours is a notoriously difficult language in which to sing: she managed the poetry, mostly by the composer’s friend Anne Hunter, very well, save for some awkwardness with the word ‘away’ which was given various pronunciations, and the unfortunate substitution of ‘with’ for ‘at’ in the line ‘Smiling at grief’ in Shakespeare’s ‘She never told her love.’ With the exception of the Shakespeare, these are not great texts, but then neither are many of those set by Schubert, and it is Haydn’s music which lifts them onto another level.

‘The mermaid’s song’ is the perfect opening piece, with its intricate prelude – superbly played by Helmut Deutsch – and its invitation to ‘Come, behold what treasures lie…Riches, hid from human eye’ and Kirchschlager sang it with her trademark open tone and sense of enjoyment. ‘She never told her love’ is in my view one of the very greatest of all settings of Shakespeare, and both singer and pianist gave it the drama and power it deserves, especially in the ‘con espressione’ piano introduction and the ineffable phrase ‘But let concealment, like a worm in the bud / Feed on her damask cheek.’ ‘Fidelity’ is not as frequently performed as it should be: this complex piece looks forward to the Schubert of the ‘Suleika’ songs, especially ‘Was bedeutet die Bewegung’ and it is the perfect vehicle for this singer’s impassioned delivery and sense of drama.

Grieg’s Op. 48 followed, its chief interest for many of us surely being the settings of poems which hare far better known in their versions by other composers: works such as ‘Gruss’ (Heine) and ‘Dereinst, Gedanke mein’ (Geibel) are so firmly associated with Mendelssohn and Wolf respectively that it is difficult to grasp at once what special flavour Grieg gives them, although the second of these is certainly harmonically original. Debussy’s famous description of Greig’s music as ‘pink bon-bons filled with snow’ seems quite apt for some of the other songs, since they have a superficial sweetness yet are lacking in warmth: to my ears, only ‘Ein Traum’ really holds the attention in this group, and Kirchschlager sang it ardently: it recalls one of Sibelius’ finest works, ‘The Jewish Girl’s Song’ especially in its moving final lines.

Going from the mediocre to the great, Kirchschlager and Deutsch ended the first part of the recital with a group of Brahms: ‘Spanisches Lied’ may not be as distinctive as Wolf’s version of the same poem (‘In dem Schatten meiner Locken’) but it was finely sung, especially in terms of the phrasing of such lines as ‘Schlief mir mein Geliebter ein’ – and the immortal ‘Der Gang zum Liebchen’ and ‘Von ewiger Liebe’ displayed the singer’s characteristic urgency and vividness of expression.

If I have a cavil with this artist it is that her range of vocal colour is a little limited: the voice is beautiful in tone and the delivery undeniably striking, but the nuances in her vocal palette are somewhat muted. This was well shown in the Poulenc group: this is a composer whose works do not feature large in my musical life (all right, I admit it, I never listen to him if I can possibly avoid it) but even I know that a piece like ‘Hôtel’ needs a certain sultriness, a certain languid quality in the voice, and a song like ‘Voyage à Paris’ requires – perish the thought – a liberal helping of the kind of archness which, say, Felicity Lott so amply provides.

Liszt found her in much better style: her French is excellent, and her elegant phrasing even made Alfred de Musset’s ‘J’ai perdu ma force et ma vie’ which is the kind of stuff that gives French lyric poetry a bad name, sound sinewy and meaningful – of course Liszt’s restrained setting helps. The writer of the Wigmore’s programme notes is very kind to de Musset, but rather sniffy about ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ which to me is one of the finest songs in the repertoire, uniting as it does a very fine poem by Victor Hugo with a sublime setting: I think of it as a man’s song, and cannot imagine Fischer-Dieskau’s recording of it being equalled, but Kirchschlager’s rendition of lines such as ‘Soudain mon rêve / Rayonnera!’ was ideally fervent. The closing ‘Die drei Zigeuner’ was an ambitious choice for this stage of a recital, but they brought it off wonderfully, with Deutsch’s playing of the cimbalom and gypsy fiddle eloquently supporting the singer’s vivid characterization. An enthusiastic audience brought them back for two encores, of which ‘Es muss ein Wunderbares sein’ (Liszt) was the more successful in its sense of intimacy.

Melanie Eskenazi


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