Nina Stemme and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra: Songs, Interludes, and Brahms

United StatesUnited States Nina Stemme and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra: Songs, Interludes, and BrahmsNina Stemme (soprano), Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center  25.4.2013 (DA)

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op.62
Grieg (orch. Dausgaard): ‘Jeg elsker dig!’
Sibelius (orch. Dausgaard): ‘Flickan om ifrån sin älsklings möte’
Valse triste, Op.44/1
Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder: ’Stehe still!’
Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Weill (orch. Helge): Lady in the Dark: ‘The Saga of Jenny’
Brahms: Liebeslieder Walzer: ‘Nein, es ist nicht auszukommen’, Op.52/11
Berlioz: Les nuits d’été, Op.7: ‘Le spectre de la rose’
Schubert (orch. Dean): ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, D531
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op.36: ‘Nimrod’
Strauss: ‘Morgen’, Op.27/4
Brahms: Symphony No.1 in C Minor, Op.68

You wouldn’t have caught Kirsten Flagstad singing ‘The Saga of Jenny’ in a trench-coat. A couple of generations later, here we have the pre-eminent Wagnerian soprano of the day – Swedish rather than Norwegian – singing and acting a concept programme that drifted from Beethoven to Wagner to Elgar and, yes, to Weill in Broadway English.

Nina Stemme and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, under their director Thomas Dausgaard, have offered variations on this programme several times in Europe, complete with lighting effects, acting, and slight costume changes. Surely, however, they have not done so while Stemme has been in the middle of a run of Tristan und Isolde.

Could one tell that she had sung Isolde the night before in Houston, in the heartless Christof Loy production she premiered at Covent Garden? Certainly. But this programme was a rather lighter take on love and death than Wagner’s opus metaphysicum –at times, especially with the Wesendonck-Liederin there, it seemed a reflection on it – and there were still plenty of signs of Stemme’s vocal quality to satisfy. Take a Flagstad favourite, Grieg’s ‘Jeg elsker dig!’, that married a cosseting comfort to tenderness, even surprise at the simplicity of love, through subtle inflections on its constant refrain of ‘I love you’. Or the capacious tone and attention to text that characterised ‘Stehe still!’ and Stemme’s first encore, ’Träume’.

Yet there was much that was less convincing. Great fun though ‘The Saga of Jenny’ proved, it would through force of personality alone as Stemme couldn’t prevent a tendency to shoehorn it into her Wagnerian palette. A mobile phone put everyone off at the start of ‘Le spectre de la rose’, but the consequent memory lapse only further illustrated that this Berlioz was set far too low for even Stemme’s voice. And what should have been the final glory, the incomparable ‘Morgen’, was transposed down and lost its radiance.

Interspersed with Stemme’s seven songs were orchestral interludes of varying weight. What Coriolan was doing as an overture to all this is beyond me – perhaps it was intended as a contrast to the Brahms – but the SCO’s chamber forces gave it a sense of togetherness and community, although their small forces were not helped by a paring back of vibrato. That made particularly little sense given the soupy, swelling orchestrations of the Grieg and Sibelius that followed. The Valse triste was more effective, languorous, with beguiling pianissimo pizzicato and a thrilling acceleration to close. The concluding duo – ’Nimrod’ leading into ‘Morgen’ – was rather too much of a good thing, although neither piece had the necessary string bloom.

Dausgaard and the SCO have just recorded Brahms’s First Symphony, and their performance after the interval showed the confidence that comes from intense study. The question of the size of orchestral forces needed for Brahms is a vexed one, the composer – as Walter Frisch’s book on the pieces suggests – expressing no firm opinion either way. The 44 players assembled here were no doubt smaller than the forces deployed even at the First’s Karlsruhe premiere, but Brahms played by such a small orchestra can be remarkably effective: two years ago Bernard Haitink proved that with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the Proms. The small forces lend a greater sense of aggression to works too often left to wallow in their “autumnal” textures, and their clarity only helps the intricacy of Brahms’s writing to emerge. If one can take the rougher edges, the benefits in communication and developmental urgency aren’t negligible.

Dausgaard wedded all that to an appoach to tempi that made Wilhelm Furtwängler look tame, exaggerating the differences in speeds, and whipping up accelerations. Sometimes the transitions were too jerky, especially in the finale, and mini-fermatas at the tops of phrases often annoyed. Architecture was forsaken for elementary urgency. Overall, though, this iconoclastic, gestural performance sucked you in, as the SCO enacted the symphony as much as played it.

David Allen