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Seen and Heard International Recital Review


Finnish National Opera January Strauss Weeks (III): Strauss, Schumann, Nyström and Wagner: Nina Stemme (soprano) Bénédicte Haid (piano) Helsinki 21.1.2006 (LK)



Nina Stemme’s recital will rank as one of the high points of the operatic calendar this year. Any discussion of her remarkable voice can easily fall into the recitation of superlatives, and I don’t think I am going to be able to avoid this. It is rich, it is expressive (which is becoming unusual), it can make you aware of nuances in the text which had escaped you before… So before this begins to sound like an adulatory article in a photo magazine, I’ll move on to the music.


Beginning with a selection of five of Richard Strauss’s more popular and familiar songs, Ms Stemme’s depth of voice and power was perhaps a little too much for ‘Ständchen’ with its lightness of texture, but came into its own with the slower and more thoughtful ‘Allerseelen’ (to a text by Hermann von Gilm) and remained so for ‘Befreit’, ‘Morgen!’ and ‘Cäcilie’.


Richard Wagner’s ‘Wesendonck Lieder’ is another familiar work which is, naturally enough, well designed to show off Ms Stemme’s vocal abilities. Following her superb account of Isolde at Bayreuth last year, it came as no surprise to hear Wagner’s songs performed with not only the usual power, but with great loveliness – despite the somewhat unfortunate texts.

It is probably better not to have the English translation too forcibly brought home, allowing those not fluent in German to concentrate on the sound. In the case of these songs I was more than happy not to have a translation available since the Opera House only provided the words in the original and in Finnish. ‘Der Engel’ and ‘Im Treibhaus’ stand out as particularly memorable.


The rest of the concert was devoted to a performance of Schumann’s ‘Frauenliebe und Leben’ and to the very beautiful ‘Sånger vid Havet’ by the surprisingly little-known Gösta Nyström, a Swedish composer and artist. Nyström’s cycle of songs, written during the Second World War is, as the title suggests, inspired by the sea, and mixes nostalgia, pain and resignation. The texts of the five songs are poems by the Swedish poets, Ebba Lindqvist, Edith Södergran, Hjalmar Gullberg and Ragnar Jändel.

In this sequence, the atmospheric piano parts were expressively played by Ms Haid, and were a great example of the partnership between pianist, singer and poetry.

Ms Stemme’s voice loses none of its richness when singing more modern music, remaining as passionate, and yet controlled, as in the heavier Strauss and Wagner. This capacity also served her well during the Schumann, which was received with great appreciation.


For her encores Ms Stemme surprised again. Having displayed her ability to sing a range of styles equally well, and a capacity for connecting with an audience which is not often found, she moved on to sing Strauss’s ‘Zueignung’ with a steadiness and involvement which I have never heard before, and which gave this song a dignity it sometimes lacks. A second encore being demanded, she gave us Weill’s ‘Surabaya Johnny’ – something which can make me cringe when sung by an operatic voice. In this case, I wasn’t alone in being amazed by the directness and passion with which she sang the song – a truly great performance in one short piece, which in many ways encapsulated the essence of what lieder should be.


Accompanied with sensitivity and assurance by Bénédicte Haid, Ms Stemme’s superb control, mastery of her material, and ability to make contact with the audience made this a memorable experience. For those who missed their Helsinki performance they are, fortunately, in London on the 8th of March at the Wigmore Hall.



Lynette Kenny

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