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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Schubert Songs: Christine Schäfer (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 24 May 2005 (AO)



It was wonderful to see the Wigmore Hall packed to capacity. Of course, both performers are excellent, and they are a long-standing partnership. But what was special was the choice of songs. Graham Johnson is the mastermind behind the all inclusive complete Schubert series on Hyperion, and his ability to compile interesting programmes is a legend. This is the sort of challenge Wigmore Hall regulars love, and they showed their appreciation.


The recital was a celebration of changing seasons. Schäfer evoked the image of autumn harvest in Erntelied and Herbstlied, singing with a vigour she is not often credited with. I was reminded of her feisty Gilda some years back, which she portrayed with strong-willed passion. She and Johnson lovingly shaped the two matching phrases in Herbstlied, “Gelb die Stroppelfelden…” and “Graue Nebel wollen …”, creating an almost sense of movement.

An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht is not widely known, but is a speciality of Johnson and Schäfer’s because it showcases the refinement of her voice and the subtlety of his playing. It’s a fairly long song, with a curiously minimal accompaniment – the piano supplies a steady “heartbeat” to the voice, which switches from tender intimacy to horrified declamation, and then back to gentle melancholy. Better known is Rellstab’s Herbst, sometimes included on programmes with Schwanengesang because of its poet and chronology. Here, Schäfer seemed to run into problems, singing too shrilly on “Sterben”, though returning to form with a whispered “Dahin!” at the end.


In Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen, she was exquisite – the first verse in particular sounded almost other-worldly, as befits a song about the afterlife. Mellismas on words like “Mädchen” and “nicht zu zahlen” were deft, decorative without being distracting. The sensitivity of partnership between Schäfer and Johnson came through in the way the voice reflected the piano part in the second verse, “Alle die von hinnen schieden, Alle Seelen ruhn in Freiden” (another mellisima on “ruhn”).


In complete contrast to the ethereal Litanei was Das Lied von Reifen. Schubert breaks the vocal line with a stabbing, stark rhythm which evokes bitterness in two senses. First, the bitterness of the poet (Claudius) at those who have wealth and comfort, then, the bitterness of the cold, transforming humble trees into objects of beauty. Johnson’s playing here captured the sharp, hard frost – he played with a relentless, driven force. Without a moment’s rest, the pair launched into an unusually turbulent Rastlöse Liebe, a song so well known it’s easy to forget the imagery of the snowstorm that hurls the poet “immer zu ! immer zu ! Ohne rast und Ruh!” It was a bracing way to present the song, and I loved it.


Softer images of winter followed with Winterlied and Sehnsucht. Then, Schäfer and Johnson turned to the lovely Der Winterabend, usually performed by a baritone. The transposition highlighted the graphic effect of sound muffled by a thick blanket of snow, getting deeper as the evening goes on. Schäfer makes the song sound strangely comforting to the bereaved husband, indeed, at one point she smiled poignantly, which was all the more moving. The final “und sinne, und sinne” was like a bell tolling, muffled and quiet but insistent – one day the lovers will be reunited.


And then the pair sprang another surprise! Up popped, shorn of its Winterreise context, Der stürmische Morgen. What a wonderful idea to hear the song as a nature piece, and by a soprano for a change. It shows that good music can’t be taken for granted.


Songs about Spring don’t often lend themselves to dramatic effects, but they do suit Schäfer’s natural delicacy and transparency. It was a pleasure to simply enjoy Schäfer’s immaculate lyricism for what it is, without the need for exaggeration. For example, songs like Hänflings Liebeswerbung, with its chirpy chorus can cloy without a light touch. Schäfer wobbled a little at the end of the von Collin Wehmut, but again returned to form quickly, giving the oafish Bursche and the coy Mädchen individual character in Der Musensohn. For a finale, Schäfer and Johnson did the much-loved Goethe song Nähe des Geliebten. Together, they brought out the gentle rocking movement in the first verse, evoking in one image, the rocking of the waves on the sea and the protective rocking of a lullaby. Like Der Winterabend, it is a desperately sad song of lost love, in which the mourner is comforted by Nature. Schäfer sang with uncommon ferocity and conviction the lines “Ich bin bei dir, du seist auch noch so ferne, du bist mir nah!” (I am with you however far you are, you are close to me). It was like surge of power, a defiant triumph over death and loss. She showed that, despite the sweetness of her tone, there is fire and strength within.


Anne Ozorio

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