United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival 5 – Britten, Schubert. Stephan Loges (baritone), Michael Dussek (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 19.10.2013 (CR)
Britten: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op 74
Schubert: Schwanengesang, D957
Despite the apparently divergent nature of the two cycles featured in this recital, they worked together very well. Musically they share a directness and profundity of expression, while their literary purposes could perhaps be seen as two sides of the same coin – Blake’s words turned outwards to a scathing criticism of society and politics at large, while the poetry of Schwanengesang diagnoses some of the individual soul’s interior afflictions.
Stephan Loges’s dignified demeanour and musical characterisation were ideally suited to the demands of both cycles, as there were no artificial or exaggerated gestures. Throughout Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake his singing was as unflinching and uncompromising as Blake’s words. Moreover though German, his English was impeccable and he caught exactly the idiom of Britten’s music, where not a note is wasted or superfluous. The prose words of most of the Proverbs were delivered with a tone somewhere between song and speech which, nonetheless, conveyed their portentous nature. In Proverb II (“Prisons are built with stones of law”), Loges was quietly seething so as to make clear Blake’s damning indictment upon the hypocritical and arbitrary morality of the political and religious establishment – whether then or now.
Between the alternating Proverbs and Songs, Loges, and Michael Dussek at the piano, skilfully modulated the mood from one section to the next in this continuous musical structure. Although there is often an immediacy in both the words and music of this cycle, Loges imparted a deeper presence to the performance – of the songs in particular – which captured the more enigmatic dimensions present in the texts and their settings.
When Loges emerged for the performance of Schwanengesang in the second half without a score, it was clear that this was not going to be an easy-going traversal of what, in some hands, can be merely a series of discrete songs, some pleasant and melodious, others offering a more troubled contrast. Instead Loges forged an impressively focused and overarching course through all the songs, melding them into as coherent and weighty a cycle as Die schöne Müllerin or Winterreise. His voice was not necessarily the most lyrical – high notes were occasionally just off pitch – but fundamentally this did not detract from the sheer concentration and integrity of his interpretation, apparent from the very first song, where the burbling brook in the piano accompaniment already presaged trouble. An irresolvable, unfulfilled Sehnsucht was at the heart of it, in which the guileless, joyful simplicity of the final song, Die Taubenpost, could serve only as an emotional palliative rather than a cure.
In case anybody had been in doubt about the cycle, this performance demonstrated it to be as fully Schopenhauerian as Tristan und Isolde. For instance, Loges subtly stressed those long, yearning vowels in the second verse of In der Ferne which express the poem’s theme – “Sehnsucht, nie endende,/ Helmwärts sich wendende!/ Busen, der wallende/ Klage, verhallende” and so on – with the sense of longing drawn unyieldingly to the end of the song. Or the sublime, seamless melody of Ständchen was sung with a warmer, searching radiance than other songs where the music is more fragmented.
In Frühlings-Sehnsucht Loges expressed mounting frustration as the verses progressed, where the poet is tossed between competing emotions. Almost needless to say, the question at the end of each verse – conveyed as an agonised musical sigh over a minor 9th – became increasingly desperate too, and it was in keeping with the overall vision that Loges did not intend to offer musical resolution in the words at the end “only you can set me free from the spring in my heart”. Der Doppelgänger opened already with a tremble in the voice to set the shadowy atmosphere, but with the horrendous realisation that the wraith is the poet’s own double form, the voice descended into inconsolable desolation, all the more devastating in retaining musical composure.
It should be said that this was not a one-dimensional, monolithic account of the cycle, but in many telling ways Loges varied his expression to heighten the impact, and to make its cumulative effect, in the very best sense, almost unbearable. Apart from the examples already given, controlled, impassioned eruptions of anger in Ihr Bild and Die Stadt could be cited (the latter all the more powerful after the initially misty image of the city conjured up in the piano part); the richly mellow tone of Am Meer; and a disarming matter-of-factness expressed in the resignation to death, suffering and loss in Kriegers Ahnung, Der Atlas and Abschied respectively (particularly unsettling in Der Atlas after a thundering piano interlude). Michael Dussek’s accompaniment worked in tandem with Loges’s singing to achieve a consistent dramatic purpose.
Although some may have preferred a simpler, lyrical or more tender approach, this was a performance of magnificent stature against which it is difficult to imagine that anybody’s defences could have remained firm. The interpretations of both the Britten and Schubert cycles evoked those notions of the sublime as that which fills the mind with terror, astonishment, nobility and greatness, and were in consequence profoundly moving.