Dramatic Flow and Thematic Unity in Third Recital of Goethe Settings

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival 4 – Schubert, Wolf. Sophie Bevan (soprano), John Chest (baritone), Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone), Sholto Kynoch (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 17.10.2013

Lieder to texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Schubert: Der Gott und die Bajadere, D254
Ganymed, D544
Suleika I, D717
Suleika II, D720
Wolf: Phänomen
Erschatten und Beleben
Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sei?
Trunken müssen wir allesein!
So lang man nüchtern ist
Sie haben wegen der Trunkenheit
Was in der Schenke waren heute
Nicht Gelegenheit macht Diebe
Hochbeglückt in deiner Liebe
Als ich auf dem Euphrat schiffte
Dies zu deuten, bin erbötig
Hätt ich irgend wohl Bedenken
Komm, Liebchen, komm!
Wie sollt ich heiter bleiben
Wenn ich dein gedenke
Locken, haltet mich gefangen
Nimmer will ich dich verlieren
Grenzen der Menschheit

This, the third recital in this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival’s series of Goethe settings, completed the survey (and recording) of Wolf’s Goethe Lieder, alongside four songs by Schubert, with many of the texts in this programme selected from the German writer’s collection of poems the West-östlicher Divan.

The recital began with Schubert’s lengthy Der Gott und die Bajadere. Despite its strophic form – each of its seven verses set to the same music – this performance easily avoided any monotony by its sensitive realisation of Schubert’s dramatic vision through Sophie Bevan’s sensitive variation of dynamics and her yearning singing of the musical refrain at the end of each verse – one of Schubert’s many melodies which haunt the mind for long afterwards, particularly when capped each time, as here by Sholto Kynoch, with the glowing piano coda. The interjections by John Chest and Jonathan Lemalu, as the priests who bear away the corpse of Mahadeva’s avatar, were suitably chanted as solemn incantations.

Bevan maintained a radiant and lyrical timbre in the three subsequent Schubert songs, lingering where necessary to heighten emotion where the text calls for it, such as Ganymede’s acknowledgement of the “Beauty without end” to which he is drawn in the eponymous song. Bevan brought Suleika I to an ending of hushed intimacy, but pushed Suleika II to an excited, fulfilling climax, though all the time employing a tone of unaffected simplicity. She rang the musical changes in her share of the Wolf settings by a generally more impassioned approach, though invoking a perhaps more appropriate freshness and innocence in her performance of Wolf’s setting of Ganymed than in Schubert’s earlier on.

In the songs apportioned to him, Lemalu was never less than mellifluous, but despite the likeable deep sonority of his voice, the sound often seemed as though it was escaping involuntarily rather than deliberately projected. Some songs passed for less than they might have done, and the seeming lack of active control resulted in some bland readings of Wolf’s almost operatic musical lines. More shading and sense of direction would have been desirable in those sections of the extended songs Prometheus and Grenzen der Menschheit where words are set to long notes on the same pitch or move only by slow, stepwise motion. On the positive side he established a more solid and steady tone in these songs, whilst maintaining an aptly fevered musical demeanour in those songs eulogising the benefits of wine, Erschaffen und Beleben and Ob der Koran von Ewigkeit sei?.

John Chest was the second replacement for Andrew Kennedy, both the latter and Mark Wilde being indisposed through illness. As Chest took the part in songs that were to be assigned to a tenor voice, it was entirely forgivable that, as a baritone, at the beginning of his first song, Trunken müssen wir allesein!, he sounded a touch strained and in a couple of other places there was a slight break in his upper range. But he overcame these problems and his resplendent tone was wonderfully evident – all the greater an achievement for stepping into this recital at short notice. There was real presence as he projected his voice assertively in more extrovert songs as Was in der Schenke waren heute, Dies zu deuten, bin erbötig, and Locken, haltet mich gefangen. In some respects a comparison with Jonas Kaufmann might not be inappropriate. When we came to the reflective song Wie sollt ich heiter bleiben Chest’s voice seemed a little more anonymous, but at other times there was a more distinctive lyricism or wistfulness, as in Nicht Gelegenheit macht Diebe or the Schubertian warmth of Komm, liebchen, komm!. He has recently started to make a name for himself in various operatic roles in continental Europe and hopefully we shall soon hear from him more widely and frequently.

Yet again, Kynoch’s playing provided not only ideal support to the singers, but fully characterised and developed musical performances in their own right. Many of Wolf’s songs involve piano parts which transcend mere accompaniment, constituting instead layered, integrated musical textures, nowhere more so than in Prometheus and Grenzen der Menschheit. In each sequence of songs on either side of the interval, dealing respectively with wine and the love between Hatem and Suleika, Kynoch pressed on from one song to the next with a minimal pause, in order to preserve a dramatic flow and thematic unity.

Curtis Rogers