An Exceptional Recital Sheds Fresh Light on Wagner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Schumann, and Liszt:Janice Watson (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano). Hall One, Kings Place, London, 26.6.2013 (MB)

Wagner – Gretchen am Spinnrade
Der Tannenbaum
Tous n’est qu’images fugitives
La tombe dit à la rose
Schumann – Liederkreis, op.24
Wagner – Adieux de Marie Stuart
Liszt – Die drei Zigeuner
Ihr Glocken von Marling
Im Rhein, im schönen Strome
Wagner – Attente


If Leipzig’s staging of Die Feen remains my highlight so far of Wagner’s anniversary year, this recital, on its smaller, relatively unassuming, scale probably comes next. Wagner’s songs play an interesting part in his output. Little heard, they are rarely characteristic, at least given the Wagner we generally hear – and of course, excluding the mature Wesendonck-Lieder. (Matters seem a little different, though not entirely so, when we admit, as we should, Wagner’s first three operas into the canon.) Yet, if most would be hard put to guess the composer, the songs not only show gifted assumption of various styles, as suggested in his early prose writings on German, French, and Italian music; they are well worth hearing in their own right.

Janice Watson and Joseph Middleton certainly proved excellent advocates for this music. Bar very occasional strain on a high note and a few confusions with the words, Watson’s engaged and engaging performances will surely have won a good few converts. Command of line was impeccable throughout, as was diction. One never had the sense that a favour was somehow being done to ‘obscure’ repertoire; the songs were treated with the care, dignity, and understanding that they deserve. Likewise Middleton’s accounts of the piano parts. Hovering, as does Wagner, between the pianistic – Wagner was never much of a pianist himself – and the orchestral, Middleton’s animated performances offered great harmonic and stylistic understanding, as well as unfailing support for the singer.

Gretchen am Spinnrade, the sixth of Wagner’s op.5 Goethe Faust-Lieder (1831) may never dislodge Schubert from our affections, but it comes surprisingly close to him in tone and indeed in assuredness. The Melodram, which comes last in that set, peers some way into the future. Neither its Weltschmerz nor its harmonic language would seem out of place in The Flying Dutchman. Die Feen is perhaps closer still; indeed, given a period of immersion in Wagner’s first opera, I was struck by a recurrent phrase, which he would reuse, consciously or otherwise, on that occasion. Middleton’s structured tone painting was splendidly complemented by Watson’s spoken delivery of the text. Wagner, we were reminded, was most definitely a ‘German’ composer stylistically, before what we think of as his ‘early’ experiments with more Italianate and French styles. Not for nothing had Der Freischütz made such an impression on him as a boy. The Georg Scheuerlin setting, Der Tannenbaum, from 1838, sounds more mature still: a wonderfully dark evocation of death foretold. As the fir-tree explains to the boy, it feels bitter when thinking of him, since the axe would soon fall upon it, to furnish the wood for the boy’s coffin: ‘Daß schon die Axt mich suchet zu deinem Totenschrein, das macht mich stets so trübe, gedenk’ ich, Knabe dein.’ One might almost think a version of Siegfried, with more of a consciousness than his successor would attain, was already beginning to receive his forest education.

The French songs would surely only have been recognised as the work of the same composer by someone who knew. They show an almost disturbing ability to assume not only a very different style from the Lieder, but even from each other. If Berlioz’s mélodies are perhaps the most abiding presence, especially in the delightful Tous n’est qu’images fugitives and Mignonne, then it is rather Meyerbeer who comes to the fore in the well-nigh scena-like Adieux de Marie Stuart. Watson’s deft handling of the coloratura was complemented by Middleton’s well-attuned ear for the moment when the piano should really turn operatic. La tombe dit à la rose is an oddity, in that the piano part is almost entirely absent. It might have been interesting to hear an attempt at realisation, but one can understand the desire simply to present what Wagner wrote; certainly his melodic gift, whatever contemporaries might have said (on which, see David Trippett’s excellent new book, Wagner’s Melodies), did not desert him on this or indeed any other occasion.

The Wesendonck-Lieder are of course familiar territory. Both performers clearly relished the opportunity now to present Wagner fully-formed, if still in (relative!) bagatelle-like mode. Watson’s command of idiom was as impressive as her at times quite extraordinary vocal shading, finely matched in the piano part. If, at first, I wondered whether ‘Im Treibhaus’ was being taken a little too swiftly, I was entirely won over by an account which, though it did not shun Wagner’s Tristan intimations, recognised quite properly that this was a song in its own right. Middleton ensured that there was no reason whatsoever to lament the lack of an orchestra, whether Wagner’s, Felix Mottl’s, or Henze’s enchanting chamber scoring.

Schumann’s Liederkreis, op.24, nevertheless reminded one of the difference between a great composer who wrote some wonderful songs and a great composer of Lieder (amongst other things). The ease of song-writing, the complex psychology of those miraculous piano parts, was given full opportunity for expression; the disturbing inevitability of ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’ brought a tear or two to my eye. Liszt may not have been primarily a song-composer, and unsurprisingly proved more experimental in that field than Schumann, but the examples of his art we heard also served to remind us of the appalling neglect he continues to suffer. The ‘gypsy’ music of the Lenau setting, Die drei Zigeuner; the proto-impressionism of Ihr Glocken von Marling; the keenness and intelligence of response to Heine in Im Rhein, im schönen Strome: all was powerfully conveyed. Watson showed herself just as much at ease with the vocal line as Middleton with the gorgeous piano parts, a treat for any pianist with the requisite technique and stylistic command. It is probably Liszt who deserves another anniversary, since there remains so much of his music known only to specialists, if at all. It seemed meet and right, then, that the encore should be a loving account of Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh.

Wagner 200 continues throughout the year. There are two further concerts this week alone; I shall be reporting back from the Aurora Orchestra’s Wagner and Beethoven concert. I have also, doubtless unwisely, agreed to participate in a debate in October on an issue about which more nonsense is spoken than any other, namely, Wagner and the Jews.

Mark Berry