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Edinburgh Festival (1)  : Strauss and Mahler.   Anne Schwanewilms (soprano) and Martin Martineau (piano) in a Strauss and Mahler programme, The Queen’s Hall, 31.08. 2006. (JPr)


The pianist Malcolm Martineau noted recently about Anne Schwanewilms, his soprano for this recital, that she is ‘the one that sang [Strauss's] Ariadne in the dress that didn't fit the other soprano’ referring to the infamous incident in 2004 when Royal Opera House appeared to sack Deborah Voigt seemingly because she was too big. Anne Schwanewilms is so secure about her allure that for this straightforward lunchtime recital she even changed her dress for the second half. With arch deep breaths before nearly each song and some ‘what me’ girlish giggling during the, admittedly, enthusiastic applause that punctuated the concert, she was a very assured performer too. Alongside her somewhat studied ‘performance’ in audience appreciation there was a great musical intelligence singing here with a very experienced accompanist supporting her, who himself was not content to remain unnoticed.


It would have been good to see Miss Schwanewilms challenged by stronger material to sing. Her programme consisted mostly of youthful songs by Strauss and Mahler composed when they were in their thirties or thereabouts. The most convincing and interesting of the Strauss songs were indeed the Drei Lieder der Ophelia Op 67, settings of a translation of Shakespeare by Karl Simrock. These three songs are the most compelling and expressionist, I have heard from Strauss: they swing from one emotional extreme to another certainly within each song and almost within each individual verse. Miss Schwanewilms’s Ophelia was a poor lost soul in mourning for her true love in the first song, the duped heartbroken victim of infidelity in the second, and finally the grief-ridden girl who has totally lost the plot. The partnership of Miss Schwanewilms and Malcolm Martineau was at its most potent in these harrowingly spare settings and for a few minutes theirs was the ideal musical symbiosis.


Why are these settings so different from almost all others? Perhaps because Strauss cared so little for them that he threw them together in a very short time while settling a twelve year dispute with his publishers in order to start making some money.  More often than not,  composing songs seems to have been an arduous chore for Strauss  and he once noted  that ‘if any poem that strikes me as in the least suitable gets set to music, then it’s slow work, a lot of artifice goes into it, the melody flows dourly’. While this was partly how he composed, the impromptu quality of these pieces probably revealed something more of his true musical talent


Richard Strauss was influenced and aided by many people during his career; including his wife Pauline, the   most influential of all,  whom he met in 1887 when he began giving her singing lessons. She proved to have considerable talent as an operatic soprano and as the printed programme mentioned ‘inspired many a Strauss song and many passages in his operas, even after she had retired from the concert platform’. This was apparently mainly through her ability ‘to float a long vocal phrase’. Only the three atmospheric Op 10 songs were from the time before Pauline and many of the remaining Strauss Lieder that Miss Schwanewilms sang, including the encore ‘Das Rosenband’, were love songs with soaring lines which showcased the soprano’s lyricism, fine legato and secure top. Of the non-Ophelia songs perhaps the highlights were the early melodic ‘Allerseelen’ (Op 10 No8) where there was a wonderfully floated ‘süssen’ and a reflective ‘Wie einst im Mai’ with a very apt introduction and conclusion from her accompanist and the impassioned later song ‘Waldseligkeit’ (Op 49 No1).


By contrast the six Mahler songs offered were more minor fare but those in the know appreciate the autobiographical nature of almost everything that Mahler wrote. His Jugendzeit Wunderhorn compositions often reflected the reminiscences of the barracks in the town he was brought up, his childhood memories of nature or his often doomed love affairs. Most unusual was ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’ where Anne Schwanewilms revelled in producing comic cuckoo sounds and the poignant ‘Nicht wiedersehen’ with her haunting concluding farewell ‘Ade, mein herzallerliebster Schatz! Ade!’ I must also mention the laserlight accuracy of her top Gs in ‘Schnieden und Meiden’.


While Miss Schwanewilms was not shy to communicate the drama in each song, whether by Strauss or Mahler by gestures, movement or facial contortions, she was guilty occasionally of getting a little too wrapped in it all when more stillness would have been more appropriate. Also, both syllables, and on rarer occasions whole words, seemed sacrificed to retain the purity of her vocal sound. Despite this quibbling it is clear why Anne  Schwanewilms is one of today’s foremost interpreters of Strauss’s leading ladies on stage. On  the recital platform, even showcased as she was by Malcolm Martineau’s sensitive and supportive accompaniment, she did not make me quite so eager to hear her singing this music again in such intimate surroundings.  


Jim Pritchard



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