Elisabeth Kulman in a Largely-Rewarding Recital

AustriaAustria Liszt, Schumann, Albin Fries, and Schubert: Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano), Eduard Kutrowatz (piano). Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 13.12.2012 (MB)

Liszt: Es muss ein Wunderbares sein, S 314
Einst, S 322
Ein Fichtebaum steht einsam, S 309/1
Ich liebe dich, S 315
Schumann:  Frauenliebe und –leben, op.42
Albin Fries:  Im Traum nur lieb’ ich dich, op.24/2
O sag es nicht!, op.24/1
Mein Garten, op.27/4
Schubert:  An die Nachtigall, D 497
Wehmut, D 772
Der Zwerg, D 771
Liszt: Es war ein König in Thule, S 278/1
Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, S 289
Die drei Zigeuner, S 320

I had been very taken with Elisabeth Kulman’s voice when I heard her in the title role of Gluck’s Orfeo under Riccardo Muti at the 2010 Salzburg Festival. The opportunity to hear her in a Liederabend with pianist Eduard Kutrowatz therefore seemed an inviting prospect. Kulman certainly has an engaging recital presence, offering a little commentary between some of the sets, and it was a pleasure to hear her rich, at times almost instrumental, voice once again.

It was, moreover, a pleasure to hear six songs, two sets of three, by Liszt on the programme, this duo recently having recorded a Liszt recital. Liszt is still of course ignored or at best patronised, a few piano works being trotted out again and again, often though by no means always by pianists who are pianists first and musicians second. (Thank goodness, then, for musicians such as Pollini and Aimard.) The composer’s songs are programmed from time to time, though again not many of them, and they stand far less central in the repertoire than they should. Kutrowatz for the most part stood as a trusty guide, the harmony at the end of the opening Es muß ein Wunderbares sein unmistakeably Lisztian, especially on the second ‘sagen’. Likewise, the opening harmonies of Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam beautifully evoked Il penseroso, signalling weightier things than in the preceding Einst, whose initial flightiness had yet given way to something deeper, though not heavy. The unusual depth to Kulman’s voice announced itself from the very opening of the first song, the piano offering crucial rhythmic underpinning, whilst Ein Fichtenbaum offered drama in her vocal delivery, without degenerating into or even slightly suggesting something ‘operatic’.

Frauenliebe und –leben received a good performance, Though the opening of its first song was almost peremptory – it often is – it soon settled down. In ‘Er das Herrlichste von allen,’ words were projected against a piano part that sounded like a veritable reproduction of the human heartbeat, words and all. That song’s final stanza offered imploring, angry, and proud sides to Kulman’s interpretation. Expectation, however, continued very much to be a guiding principle, for instance during ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’, leading up to a nicely impetuous ‘An meinem Herzen’. Finally, in ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan,’ we heard a little, though not too much, of the operatic lament, the tragic heroine. After such pain, the piano postlude proved almost unbearably touching, necessarily soaked in the experience of what had gone before. If I had not always felt quite so involved by the performances as I might have hoped, I certainly did by the end.

Three songs by Albin Fries (b. 1955) opened the second half. It is always an interesting prospect to hear music by a composer of whom one has never heard, yet sometimes there is good reason for his lack of renown. Fries, it transpires, is the composer of two operas (Nora and Tizian) as well as songs, piano pieces, and chamber music. My initial reaction was astonishment that the songs we heard had been written towards the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Yet even if they had been written a hundred years earlier – and untimeliness, as Strauss or indeed Nietzsche might attest, can very occasionally prove a virtue – they would hardly have convinced. Essentially neo-Romantic – perhaps not even ‘neo-’? – with occasional, very tame, ‘wrong’ notes redolent of the cocktail lounge, the songs proved uninteresting, unmemorable to a fault. Sub-sub-sub-Strauss harmonies, with hints perhaps of something French, were contradicted by a distinct lack of Strauss’s highly developed sense of form and sheer craftsmanship. Each song, including one, Mein Garten, with a text by Hofmannsthal himself, meandered along quite without consequence. Performances were undoubtedly committed, yet I could not help but ask myself: to what end?

Schubert followed. First came the D 497 An die Nachtigall, though the programme unfortunately provided the text for D 196. If I found the first two songs in this group a little generalised, Der Zwerg was a definite highlight. Schubert in ballad mode was afforded a keen sense of narrative thrust from both artists. If Erlkönig was almost inevitably brought to mind, this yet remained very much its own piece, music-dramatic through and through. Not for the first time I reflected on the often overlooked kinship between Schubert and Wagner.

It was to Liszt that we returned for the final set. High Romanticism seemed more suited to Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, a wonderful Heine setting, than it had to Goethe’s Es war ein König in Thule, though Kutrowatz occasionally struggled, seemingly less ‘inside’ the music than Kulman. The pianist was in much better form for the closing Lenau Drei Zigeuner. He even allowed himself – and us – a lengthy pause during the piano introduction, until someone finally switched off his/her mobile telephone, the culprit treated with better humour than was deserved. Kulman offered a winning impression of the gypsy world in her vocal performance; there was a genuine sense of the improvisatory to the performance as a whole. I am less than convinced that this particular song shows Liszt at his finest, but anyway…

Mark Berry

This recital will be broadcast on Austrian Radio 1 (Ö1), on 21 January 2013, at 10.05 Austrian time.