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Seen and Heard Recital Review

 

SCHREIER AT SEVENTY: Peter Schreier 70th Birthday Concerts,  Schumann, ‘Dichterliebe’ with Roger Vignoles, Royal College of Music, Wednesday 12th January 2005;  Bach, Mass in B Minor, RCM Chamber Choir and Orchestra, St John’s Smith Square, Friday 14th January 2005 (ME)

 

 

Dichterlieben, of course, practically grow on trees: on this same evening, one could have chosen to hear the work at the Wigmore Hall by one of the RCM’s former pupils, Jonathan Lemalu – most other critics did choose that performance, but I doubt very much if the quality of the singing would have been the equal of Schreier’s. These commemorative performances were instigated by the RCM’s Head of Vocal Studies, Neil Mackie, himself a distinguished interpreter of these works, and Wednesday night’s was one of the best things he has organised there.

 

Every tenor wants to have a go at ‘Dichterliebe’ – it is officially everyone’s favourite song cycle, and even a pretty mediocre performance by yet another wannabe Wünderlich is liable to be called ‘a recital of astonishing maturity’ by those who really should know better. What a pity that one couldn’t have lined up virtually every other singer and critic and frogmarched them all to the RCM to hear Schreier sing it with matchless authority and unequalled depth of understanding. The voice has never been the most purely beautiful: one never went to hear this singer in expectation of perfect tone, but his interpretive skill allied to a highly individual timbre have always singled him out – so fine is his technique that the years have been relatively kind to him, so that only the most taxing notes find him little stretched.

 

The key to ‘Dichterliebe’ is the right combination of rapture and borderline hysteria, and Schreier and Vignoles capture it exactly. ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ was sung with the beautiful legato line yet the sense of longing was already there in the first line, echoed by the hesitancy of the piano. ‘Die Rose, die Lilie’ was taken extremely fast, as it should be, leaving ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh'’ to be the still centre: Schreier’s interpretation of crucial words such as ‘ganz’ and ‘bitterlich’ here provided an object lesson in how to lean on significant moments without making them bear too much weight. The same was true of ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen’ where in the final line, ‘In wunderbar süßer Stund’ most singers will select either the noun or one of the adjectives to highlight: Schreier is able to give each word its proper importance, never pushing too hard, but never crooning either.

 

Vignoles played the nachspiel to the eighth song superbly, and launched into ‘Das ist ein Flöten’ with real relish: ‘Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen’ was perhaps the evening’s finest example of the closeness of spirit between pianist and singer, with the piano’s rippling arpeggios gently supporting the melancholy vocal line. ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’ is often the song where the emergent or the merely mediocre feel that they can indulge in a bit of over-the-top action: hands in pocket, pseudo – eloquent shrugs and so on: however, histrionics are not welcome here, and as always, Schreier shows the way with gestures that are as subtle as his singing.

 

And what of that giveaway little word, ‘Heimlich’ in ‘Allnächtlich im Traume’? Perfection: delicately suggestive of intimacy yet not remotely distanced from its line, as finely sung as the last two stanzas of the penultimate song – these lines had it all, from the sense of fervent longing at ‘und dort mein Herz erfreun’ through fleeting bliss at ‘frei und selig sein!’ and finally bitter realization at ‘wie eitel Schaum.’

 

We had been invited to hear ‘Dichterliebe’ and that was all we had expected, so dinner plans had been made nearby for 7.45 after a 7 p.m. start: however, the concert also featured a lively performance of Brahms’ opus 101 by three of the RCM’s rising young instrumental stars, with Andrew Joyce an especially promising ‘cellist, and as an encore, ‘because ‘Dichterliebe’ is so short,’ we got ‘not one encore but twelve’ in the shape of the opus 39 ‘Liederkreis.’ This ‘encore’ featured some marvellous singing and playing, especially in ‘Intermezzo’ and an impassioned ‘Schöne Fremde’ and closed with a ‘Frühlingsnacht’ which came as close as any I have heard to the ideal, with the throbbing semi-quavers of Vignoles’ accompaniment echoing the fervent urgency of the vocal line. Rumour has it that this may be Schreier’s last London recital: if so, he could hardly have departed from the platform on a higher note.

 

Schreier is also, of course, a notable conductor and at St John’s on Friday, RCM students were directed by him in a performance of the B Minor Mass. His presentation of the Christmas Oratorio in January 2003 was remarkable not only because he combined the role of conductor with that of narrator, but also owing to the team of soloists, drawn as they were from the cohort that included Andrew Kennedy and Jared Holt: it would be too much to ask for another group with suchoutstanding promise, and amongst this evening's singers only the mezzoMartina Welschenbach and the baritone Håkan Ekenäs were at their level. Welschenbach sang the sang the ‘Qui sedes’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ with a smooth line and plenty of confidence, and Ekenäs gave a fluent rendering of ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctam’: his is a voice with a very distinctive character, almost tenorial at the top and with plenty of power. The other singers did not fare so well, but they were mostly very young indeed and cannot but have been encouraged and inspired by the experience of working with Schreier.

 

The RCM Chamber Choir was superbly directed by Paul Spicer, with the alto sections especially strong: this was a dramatic reading of the score above all in sections like ‘Et resurrexit’ which had the appropriate note of triumph. Instrumentally there were some fine performances to savour, notably from the flutes in the ‘Domine Deus’ and ‘Benedictus’ and the strings in the ‘Credo’.  Schreier maintained the work’s sense of grandeur throughout, whilst highlighting its intimacy and narrative qualities, and although I would not say that his conducting is in the same class as his singing, he brings to it a highly individual Lieder singer’s sense of phrasing as well as a devotion to Bach’s music which is genuinely inspirational to know.

 

Melanie Eskenazi

 

 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)