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Seen and Heard Recital Review




Wagner, Liszt And The Romantic Tradition: Susan Bullock (Soprano), Louis Lortie (Piano), Wigmore Hall, 12.4.2006 (JPr)



Opera house managements in this country have been accused of neglecting Susan Bullock: frequently touted as a Brünnhilde of the present and future, two British Ring cycles passed her by in favour of American and Australian sopranos. She has sung the role in Tokyo and will sing it soon in Canada. Unfortunately it must be said that at her best during this recital she sounded more of a Carmen than a Wagnerian. This was the third in the pianist Louis Lortie’s short ‘Wagner, Liszt and the Romantic Tradition’ residency, and the second I attended.

There were two selections of songs by Franz Liszt, mostly originating in the early to mid-1840s. As the programme indicated: ‘Liszt submitted just about all of his earlier songs to thorough revisions, or several revisions in a few cases, laying a musical minefield.’ So much so that, Ms Bullock’s memory notwithstanding, occasionally there were different words and four lines lost from one of them, most notably in the German group.

Amongst that group to texts by Schiller, Heine and Goethe was ‘Die drei Zigeuner’ (The three gypsies) by the slightly lesser known Nikolaus Lenau (who went insane in mid-life and died at 48). This draws heavily on Liszt’s Gypsy researches with its pianistic evocations of the cimbalom and fiddle czardas wonderfully brought out by having such a virtuoso as accompanist with Louis Lortie. Until this last song of five Ms Bullock had sounded ill at ease – perhaps with an unannounced cold? There seemed to be gaps between the registers in the voice and there was no warmth or resonance. However, allowed to give character to the gypsies sleeping and smoking through life, she seemed to engage with the audience for the first time. Language is not a problem for Ms Bullock as her diction was impeccable in both German and French.

Her five French songs were much more suited to Ms Bullock’s voice: there was a gorgeous trill at the conclusion of ‘Comment, disaient-ils’ (How? They asked) and overall there were some sensuously intimate moments which led to the thoughts of her as Carmen.

Louis Lortie, a supportive accompanist throughout, contributed three solos during the evening; ‘Nuages gris from 1881 and ‘R.W. – Venezia(1883). Both were short and typically technically difficult, and both owed a lot to Liszt’s interest in Wagner. The first had a six-note motif straight from Tristan und Isolde and his later tribute to Wagner on learning of his death involved almost a pastiche of the god’s entry to Valhalla from Das Rheingold. The final solo was ‘Isolde’s Liebestodarranged by Liszt in 1867. This is quite a homage by him because without Liszt’s own influence through his harmonic innovations there probably would have been no Tristan in the first place. Abandoning the steely Fazioli piano from the previous recital for a more sympathetic Steinway, Louis Lortie revelled in this crown jewel of the ‘Romantic Tradition’ and it was both powerful and impassioned. The order these were played was changed on the night and indeed the ‘Liebestodhad been temporarily in and then out of the earlier recital programme. The original listing for this recital had a selection of Wolf’s Mörike Lieder down to be sung: Louis Lortie seems a perfectionist as regards his musical programming – or is it that he cannot make up his mind?

Amongst the Wesendonck Lieder, ‘Im Treibhaus,’ ‘Träume’ and Schmerzen were the best sung, but Ms Bullock’s voice still failed to resonate or bloom and, for example, the ‘Luft’ and ‘Duft’ in the first of these sank quickly instead of floating through the hall.

So I was set to write a very downbeat conclusion to this review… and then and then… as the first encore we were treated (too tame a word!) to a rendition of ‘Dich, teure Halle, grüss ich wieder.’ This was as gloriously radiant as any concert version I had heard before and quite possibly was in fact the best I had ever heard! Any vocal problems had disappeared and in the words of a great tenor friend of mine, she had given it ‘some great welly’! The sides of the Wigmore Hall seemed to vibrate: then almost immediately as her second extra item she sang Liszt’s ‘Es muss ein Wunderbares sein’ revealing the qualities in her voice that we had expected during the earlier part of the evening.

After the recital I was handed a leaflet about the Toronto Ring, proudly proclaiming in bold SUSAN BULLOCK IS BRÜNHILDE. Only the first encore made me really believe that. An aside, but would you trust your tour to anyone who missed a spelling error quite that important?



© Jim Pritchard





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