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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Ruzicka, Britten, Schumann: Bo Skovhus (baritone), Stefan Vladar (piano) Wigmore Hall, 25th April, 2005 (AO)



Once, I might have avoided this concert. This programme is much more difficult to carry off than meets the eye. It is a challenge both technically and interpretatively, and needs performers of great sensitivity. Ten years ago, Skovhus was still known as “Boje” and was admired for his godlike good looks, although his voice then was tight and dry. To his credit, his voice has mellowed considerably over the years and has a richer warmth and depth. A few years ago, he sang an extremely good semi-staged Peer Gynt. He's also done excellent recital work: his Wolf recordings are under rated. He might have become a megastar if he'd exploited his earlier following, but he chose artistic integrity instead. He deserves respect all the more.


In Peter Ruzicka's Sechs Gesänge nach Fragmenten von Nietzsche, wide ranging musical, literary and philosophic ideas are distilled into concentrated intensity. What you “don't” hear is part of its fascination. Just as a stone thrown in a lake causes ripples to spread wider and wider, Ruzicka's music “expands” in the response it gets from a listener. Fundamentally, it is open ended, and equivocal. Like the poets he chooses, he poses questions, which hover and provoke. In a previous age, people fell back on certainties: in ours, we've learned that being too cocksure can lead to horrors. It's not surprising that Celan and Hölderlin are poets of choice in modern music. Ruzicka chooses only fragments of Nietzsche's poems. The words are like zen sayings, developed, not by more words but by an equally zen like musical extension. The writing for piano is as stark as the minimal words themselves. “Es erhob sich ein Geschrei” (a cry arose) goes the voice, punctuated by a few deft single notes on the piano, then the singer adds “um Mitternacht”, and the piano part rises and expands. Then Skovhus sings a grave, strong “das kam von der Wüste her” (from the wilderness). That's the whole song. Verbal aphorism is parried by musical aphorism, their meaning left to float into the subconscious.


Vladar is an amazing pianist, a young virtuoso with an extensive solo career. He has a real ear for the subtleties of the pulse of this music, in which silence and timing play almost as much a part as the piano. Single notes are held and stretched. Barely perceptible transitions and patterns shape this music: it's like those Japanese puzzle boxes where shifting one piece reveals another. Skovhus's sensitivity to the way the voice part reflects the piano is impressive – without his musical intelligence, the music might not work so precisely. This is a beautiful cycle, the lyricism underpinned by minimal scoring. There is a later version, for orchestra, which is more densely textured, but this is starker and more unsettling. The programme notes were unfortunately minimal, too, barely touching on Ruzicka as composer. However, I love Ruzicka's work, so writing this is a way of returning the favour.


We are so used to hearing Britten's Songs and Proverbs of William Blake sung by doughty fellows, that it is something of a jolt to hear them sung by someone who does not conform, but sings them as sheer music. Skovhus's diction was not precise, but he and Vladar seem to be responding to something beyond the familiar words. Indeed, they brought out the startling modernism of Britten's concept more acutely than versions which are more word focussed. It's refreshing to hear the piano part played with such dynamism. Vladar was almost demonic, relishing in the preludes and postludes which tie the cycle together. I was struck by the unconscious parallels between this cycle and Ruzicka's, for in both song and piano work together equally and seamlessly. Hearing Britten performed in this way really brought out the disturbing undertones of Blake's poems. Like the Nietzsche fragments, Blake's aphorisms are simple, but bursting with meaning, and Britten's settings are powerfully intense. As Blake so aptly wrote, and Skovhus so firmly sang:


“To see a World in a grain of sand
And Heaven in a wild flower,

To hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.


Schumann's Op. 35 might have been an anticlimax to the first, demanding, part of the programme. It's familiar enough that a listener might relax. But whoever planned this programme knew what they were doing. The obvious connection is the way that the songs in all three pieces are integrated by the piano part into something more than a group of songs. The Kerner songs aren't related textually, but are unified by key and construction. There are pairs of songs related together and repeating themselves, patterns within patterns, like the “Japanese puzzles” in Ruzicka and Britten. Even more importantly, however, Julius Kerner, like Blake and Nietzsche, was a visionary and mystic. He also knew Hölderlin. There is something unworldly in these poems. The young nun withdraws from the world, the drinker sees the mystery of life in the wine in his dead friend's goblet. Schumann, who like Nietzsche, would be crushed by illness, intuited the bizarre. Perhaps Skovhus and Vladar wanted to give the audience respite, for they did not mine the wilder depths inherent in this group of songs. Goerne, for example, makes a speciality of them, making them seem mystical and ambivalent, questioning, not closed, but that's exceptional. Skovhus and Vladar did well. Skovhus hit a few rough notes, but compensated with some nice details. He even managed the punishing tessitura where the nun's voice is evoked in Stirb, Liebe und Freud, which even throws some tenors. I'm pleased at how far Skovhus has come, and truly amazed with Vladar.


Anne Ozorio



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