An Excellent Bicentennial Survey of Lesser-Known Wagner

26/05/2013

United KingdomUnited Kingdom London Song Festival 2013: The Complete Songs of Richard Wagner, in celebration of his bicentenary, Elisabeth Meister (soprano), Matthew Hargreaves (bass-baritone), Nigel Foster (piano), members of the London Voices, St Paul’s, Covent Garden Piazza, London 23.5.2013. (JPr)

Programme included:

Wagner:
Sieben Kompositionen zu Goethes Faust
Parisian Songs’
Wesendonck Lieder
An Webers Grabe

The London Song Festival is an annual event founded in 2007 by the pianist Nigel Foster to promote the Song repertoire. This was my first visit to one of their events and proved a fascinating opportunity to hear a performance of all of Wagner’s completed and surviving songs. This was also the second concert of the Wagner 200 Festival (www.wagner200.co.uk) that had begun the day before (on his birthday) with a less than memorable evening of ‘greatest hits’ at the Royal Festival Hall (review).

Although not quite as ambitious as that event this was by far the more interesting of the two evenings and warranted a much more prestigious occasion than afforded by the London Song Festival at St Paul’s Church. This venue lies just off the Covent Garden Piazza, dates from the seventeenth-century, is attributed to Inigo Jones and is commonly known as the ‘Actor’s Church’. When I helped put on the first UK performance of all of Alma Mahler’s songs several years ago it was at the Wigmore Hall and that is where this event deserved to be, or somewhere similar that was free of creaking pews, the intruding noise of London and had rather more than a 100 or so present. The tremendous hard work that Nigel Foster and his singers had put into this event deserved more … and so did Wagner. This is not meant as any criticism of the London Song Festival but perhaps a lack of ambition (due to finance, I suspect) by Wagner 200. At the Royal Festival Hall a singer was unable to memorise his role for a semi-staged performance, yet here when two soloists were singing many rarely performed songs – the majority of which they will never sing again in their careers – they admirably sang all of them without a score in front of them.

We heard every completed song that Wagner wrote: he was more interested in larger-scale works and eventually, thanks to King Ludwig II, he had the time and the money to complete and stage all the operas for which he is famous – or infamous. This is unlike Gustav Mahler who revered him but whose maxim seemed to be ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go!’ Mahler was a jobbing conductor who, I am convinced, would have written his own operas if only he had rather more than his summer holidays for his music.

Wagner’s songs falls into three main times in his life. The early Sieben Kompositionen zu Goethes Faust for soprano, bass and chorus – including his version of Gretchen am Spinnrade – were written in 1831 when the composer was only 18. What are called, for the benefit of this concert, his 1839 to 1840 ‘Parisian Songs’ are mostly in French. Wagner, in flight from creditors, wrote these to send to celebrated singers in the hope they would perform them in the Paris salons: the hope was that he would thereby make a name for himself and, hopefully, some much-needed money. Last but certainly not least – because they are Wagner’s masterpieces – he composed the song cycle Wesendonck Lieder in 1857 and 1858. He was involved with Mathilde Wesendonck in what may only have been an affair of the mind but he set to music her five poems at the time he was working on Tristan und Isolde: the Prelude to Act III (Im Treibhaus) and the Act II duet (Träume) are heard in these songs, described as ‘Studies’ for that opera.

Like many in the audience I was hearing most of these songs for the first time and they probably need a second hearing, but I found it very revealing how most of them demanded not only vocal authority but personality and dramatic conviction; in this regard it would be difficult to imagine two better soloists than Elisabeth Meister and Matthew Hargreaves. Along with the enthusiastic members of the London Voices, Hargreaves had great fun with Es war einmal ein König (‘There once was a king’), a political satire involving fleas and much scratching at the end. He made more of two unaccompanied bagatelles, Lied für Louis Kraft and Wagner’s only song in Italian, than they probably deserved. He brought gravitas to Les Deux Grenadiers to which Wagner gives quite a grandiose setting that includes La Marseillaise. Hargreaves relished the sense of frivolity in the poem Soupir that was the text for Tout n’est qu’images fugitives (‘Everything is but a fleeting image’) that was mirrored in Nigel Foster’s spirited accompaniment.

Elisabeth Meister impresses me more and more each time I see her, my only concern is that there are few roles in this country for a dramatic soprano of her range and vocal gifts, though I am pleased to see that she will sing Lady Macbeth for Scottish Opera next season. Her singing of the Wesendonck Lieder was better than many I have heard recently. Ms Meister’s forthright voice, splendidly even across all registers, lifted the phrases of the reflective Der Engel (‘The Angel’), soared during the restless, impassioned ‘Stehe Still’ (‘Be quiet’), whilst her softer, more sustained singing was especially engrossing in Träume (‘Dreams’). This cycle of songs finally gave the always-supportive Nigel Foster’s piano a chance to shine most notably with the extended ending to Schmerzen (‘Anguish’).

Earlier, Elisabeth Meister had emphasised her dramatic gifts when reciting the words of Melodram Gretchens over the music and when embodying the sadness of a mother grieving for a dead child in the poignant Dors mon Enfant (‘Sleep, my Child’). But it was the pastiche Donizetti of Wagner’s 1840 Les Adieux de Marie Stuart,recognised as his most ‘operatic’ song, that showed she is not only a Wagnerian – a future Isolde and Brünnhilde – but a lyric coloratura soprano of great promise: quite a revelation.

So, many congratulations go to Nigel Foster, Elisabeth Meister and Matthew Hargreaves for presenting this programme of Wagner’s complete songs to mark his bicentenary. I must not forget the important contribution made by the 12-strong members of the London Voices, especially during the Faust songs. Although rather more mournful than celebratory, the men, led by Norbert Meyn, sang the elegiac chorus An Webers Grabe (‘At Weber’s Grave’) that was a very, very moving and a fitting, if somewhat downbeat, end to what was an excellent concert of curiosities.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the London Song Festival go to www.londonsongfestival.org.

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