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Seen and Heard Recital Review



Grieg, Strauss, Nystroem, Wagner: Nina Stemme (soprano) Bénédicte Haid (piano) Wigmore Hall, London, 8.3.2006 (AO)


The audience for opera is many times larger than it ever could be for Lieder.  There just are more people interested in opera, so sheer market logic means that opera values predominate.  Lieder, however, is a specialised genre with its own distinctive ethos, and Lieder values are not quite the same as in opera.  It doesn’t necessarily follow that what’s good in opera works in Lieder and because the genres have a different value system, they do require different approaches.  Like David and Goliath, one form has the advantage of size and strength, while the other relies on wit and agility.  This David and Goliath, though, can live in harmony by respecting each other’s differences and similarities.

Nina Stemme’s luscious voice produces lovely Isoldes, Elsas, and Marchallins.  She has the vocal power to sustain large roles and infuse them with colour and feeling.  In short, a born opera singer, made for Strauss, Wagner and Mozart.  So it’s interesting to hear her in a recital of Lieder.  Wisely, she chose songs by Strauss and Wagner, but more imaginatively, Grieg and the underrated Swedish composer Gösta Nystroem.  For some years now, Scandinavian singers have been championing Scandinavian art song, and for good reason : it is a beautiful, unique genre within a genre.  Moreover, Scandinavian composers are prolific.  Grieg and Sibelius songs get plenty of exposure but there are still so much wonderful material known mainly to specialists.  Any opportunity to hear Nystroem, Rangström, Stenhammer, Petersen-Berger and others shouldn’t be missed.

Stemme started with Grieg’s song of Spring, Våren, infusing it with warm tones and colours.   Then, she sang  the famous En Svane.  This song was one of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s favourites, out of her considerable repertoire.  Her recording of it is one to treasure, for it captures her voice at its most mellow and contemplative. Stemme didn’t quite reach that level, but Schwarzkopf’s standards are higher than most.  In this song and in its companion, Med en vandlije (to a waterlily), Stemme grasped the essence of Grieg’s delicate sound world.  She captured the ebb and flow phrasing of Med en vandlije specially well, where the phrases imitate the gentle  lapping of the waters at the edge of the lake, disguising the menace of the deep beyond.  Often singers who excel in Scandinavian song are those with “white”, clear voices like Anne Sofie von Otter, who has done so much to create interest in this repertoire.  Not for nothing she called one of her collections “Watercolours”, for that evokes their subtle, magical world, full of half tones and mystic ambiguity.

Stemme seemed so immersed in the world of the Grieg songs that she had problems gauging up to the Strauss songs.  Ständchen worked well because it continued the theme of lightness and transparency.  Somehow, though, something was amiss.  After a longish interval between songs, she regained a Straussian persona, returning to the crescendos of Morgen and Cäcilie.  If she wasn’t on form, it may have been that she was still thinking as a Lieder singer.  But that’s to her credit.  It’s much better that she should understand and make the effort than to assume one style fits all.  The pianist, Bénédicte Haid, showed real sensitivity to her singer, spotting quickly that she needed support.  In the preludes and interludes, her playing was refined and thoughtful – I’d like to hear her again.

With Gösta Nystroem’s Sänger vid Havet (Songs by the sea), she was able to get the balance right.  Nystroem wrote in a fairly modern style, but his songs brood with dark atmospheric drama.  Indeed, Stemme is so good in this song cycle that her recording of it is to be recommended.  The darker hues in her register serve this cycle well, for it is an atmospheric mood piece, haunted by the immensity of nature, the ocean, endless skies and the mystery of the night.  It is an intense, inward looking piece, even though it is framed by a panorama of wild, weather beaten landscape and eternal horizons.  It’s demanding for performers as it skips between major and minor keys, culminating in a deep, other worldly Jag vänet månen (I wait for the moon).  The inherent theatricality of the images means that a singer who can act with her voice can reach its more profound levels.

With the Wesendonck Lieder, Stemme was back in her natural territory.  Again, this is a highlight of her repertoire and she would understand the suppressed sexual longing behind its composition.  Normally, these songs would be her forte, and she would have stressed more clearly the sharp German consonants that contrast so well with the sensuous nature of the songs.   Mixed with moments of delicious round sound were odd notes a tad too high, it was overall a good performance if the emotion was somewhat underplayed.  For encores, she and Haid chose Grieg’s Jeg elsker Deg (I love you), a guaranteed hit, and as a surprise, Kurt Weill’s Surabaya Johnny


Anne Ozorio  

For a link to Stemme’s recent Helsinki concert by Lynette  Kenny click here



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