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Schubert, ‘Die schöne Müllerin’   Thomas Quasthoff, Charles Spencer, Wigmore Hall, 20.11.2005 (ME)



The soothingly soporific strains of Des Baches Wiegenlied were quite unnecessary for many of the audience on this Sunday afternoon, since the heat in the hall had already had the effect of sending them into a quiet doze; from around half way through the cycle, people in front of me, along the row from me and behind me, had their chins on their chests and their eyes tightly shut, not in contemplation but in peaceful sleep. No reflection on the singing, of course, just the fact that despite the newish air conditioning, the Wigmore still seems to want to maintain a temperature best suited to premature babies and the over-eighties. The sleepers awoke, of course, to give a thunderous ovation to a very beautifully sung, though only dutifully played and hardly innovative performance.

Das Wandern was taken quite slowly, at a relaxed rather than hearty pace: one had little sense of the eagerness of the youth here, rather more of a comfortable amble, and the piano in particular seemed less than full of confidence. Danksagung an den Bach found Quasthoff and Spencer more finely attuned, but I felt the lack of any sense of the import of the girl’s goodnight to everyone at the close of Am Feierabend, although this and the following song were sung with supremely lovely tone and warmth of vocal colour. This in fact was my general feeling about the interpretation: it is sung with great beauty of tone and played sympathetically, but despite the occasional special attention given to certain words – die Steine, treiben, Bächlein etc, and the brief outbursts of drama, the general feeling is of a rather gemütlich situation: this of course is fine, and will naturally please those seeking a safe interpretation, but may not endear itself to those expecting something more psychologically subtle.

For me, this cycle is more despairing than even Winterreise:  there, the protagonist strides on, but here, he destroys himself in the very symbol of his love and livelihood, and in my view the drama reaches a crisis point at Pause, described by John Reed as ‘the most subtle and inspired song in the cycle’ – I felt that here, however, Quasthoff had opted for charm over subtlety, and in the following Mit dem grünen Lautenbande we had something far more akin to what might be called the ‘traditionally delightful’ rather than the outburst of desperation which other recent interpreters see in this music.

I continue to have a problem with Quasthoff’s dependence on the score, and I’m saying this in full knowledge of the  wigging I’ll get for it: there’s nothing wrong with a singer having a score in front of him so long as he refers to it only occasionally, but here we had whole stanzas where the singer did not look up once – maybe I’m being pernickety but I really don’t think that anyone – certainly not a native German speaker who is steeped in the tradition of this poetry and music – should need to read  the lines ‘Ach, Tränen machen / Nicht maiengrun, / Machen tote Liebe / Nicht wieder blühn.’ Of course we Wigmore regulars love him to bits anyway, but I just want to see those expressive eyes on us rather than the score.

You could not ask for finer singing than we got in songs like Morgengruss and Des Baches Wiegenlied:  Quasthoff always excels when a sense of powerful ease is needed, and the former song displayed this in almost every line, the delicately coloured Du blondes Köpfchencontrasting with the open frankness of  Die Liebe Leid und Sorgen.’  The final ‘lullaby’ is not given with the ‘heavenly detachment’ which Johnson and others find in the music: rather, it has a kind of consoling grandeur which comforts rather than dismays: Ihr macht meinem Schläfer die Träme so schwer does not so much suggest that our own dreams are troubled as that the protagonist’s watery end was both inevitable and full of pathos. 



Melanie Eskenazi 



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