Unity of Purpose in Goethe Settings at Oxford

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Oxford Lieder Festival (1) Schubert, Schumann, Wolf:  Louise Alder (soprano), Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano), Neal Davies (baritone), Sholto Kynoch (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 12.10.2013. (CR)

Lieder to texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Schubert: Grenzen der Menschheit, D716

Wer kauft Liebesgötter?, D261
Heidenröslein, D257
So laßt mich scheinen, D877
Schumann: Mignon
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
Wer nie sein Brot mit Thränen aß
Heiß mich nicht reden
Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt
Singet nicht in Trauertönen
An die Türen will ich schleichen
So laßt mich scheinen

Wolf: Harfenspieler I
Harfenspieler II
Harfenspieler III
Mignon I
Mignon II
Mignon III
Der Sänger


Although not the opening concert of this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival, this was the first instalment in its series featuring song settings of words by Goethe – almost all, in this case, setting words from his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, which turned out to be something of a lodestar for the Romantic movement at large. Certainly in this recital one could trace the development of that movement in musical terms with some of its earlier, lyrical stirrings in four songs by Schubert – two of which were composed when he was only 18 – through Schumann, and on to the heady, chromatic yearnings expressed in Wolf’s settings, taking their cue from the musical revolution which Wagner had brought about in the meantime. Some of the texts were encountered two, or even three, times in the course of the recital, but that made for an all the more instructive comparison among these composers’ responses to Goethe’s novel.

Variety was also created by the distribution of the programme among no fewer than three singers, two of whom (Katarina Karnéus and Neal Davies) came to prominence after winning prizes in the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in the 1990s. Louise Alder has recently graduated from the Royal College of Music International Opera School but has already won prominent accolades. She is clearly a soprano with considerable musical energy and power, almost bursting into the recital vocally in Schubert’s Wer kauft Liebesgötter?, which seemed a little flustered as a result, with speedily enunciated syllables eliding into each other. Heidenröslein was more puckish – though it might have been a little more light hearted, as Wolf’s Philine could have been too – and in Schubert’s So laßt mich scheinen she sustained a more seamless and innocent vocal quality, but these songs tended to be rather operatic in delivery with wide and heavy vibrato. The radiance and sonority of her voice could not be faulted though, and at other times she was able to judge the dramatic force of a line in a song to great effect, for instance her impatience and excitement as she asked her listeners in Schumann’s Mignon (a setting of ‘Kennst du as Land?’) whether they knew the land (that is, her homeland, Italy), the longing expressed in Schumann’s Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, or the build up to her imploring “O make me forever young again” at the end of Schumann’s So laßt mich scheinen.

Neal Davies had a similar tendency to declaim, though to a less melodramatic effect, largely borne of his deep, baritone range. He followed Sholto Kynoch’s bold opening on the piano in Schubert’s Grenzen der Menschheit at the beginning of the recital with a sonorous invocation of the ‘age-old Holy Father’, moving on to a powerful, even admonitory consideration of how mankind’s powers fall considerably short of those belonging to the Divine. He rose to a great, even terrifying, climax in Wolf’s Harfenspieler III, but the insistent, almost hectoring tone of Spottlied blunted some of that song’s witty irony. Like Alder, though, he convincingly showed that this was certainly not his default mode of expression, by conveying sorrow and strain in Schumann’s Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, a hushed, creeping character in An die Türen will ich schleichen, and wistfulness in Harfenspieler II. In Schumann’s Wer nie sein Brot mit Thränen aß the expression of weariness in his voice was interwoven seamlessly with the piano accompaniment, like an additional organ stop blended into a well-balanced registration.

Katarina Karnéus had only Wolf’s four Mignon songs and Schumann’s Singet nicht in Trauertönen to sing, but her impact was no less remarkable for that. Her almost transfixed character in the Mignon I, II and III songs brought an intensity and clarity of tone to her singing, demonstrating that with an economy of expressive means, less can mean more. These songs were in very great contrast to the vivacious character of Singet nicht in Trauertönen. But in the latter, over Kynoch’s lively accompaniment, she floated the vocal melody calmly, even casually, capturing precisely the song’s celebration of love’s pleasures without any forced musical gestures, and both she and Kynoch finished this song together in one witty, inconclusive accord. In Wolf’s Mignon (setting ‘Kennst du dasLand’ again), Karnéus established a warm, mellow tone, though rising to the impassioned refrain ‘Do you know it [Italy]? It’s there, it’s there’, again with transfigured joy.

Kynoch’s accompaniments were exemplary in setting an appropriate mood for each song and sustaining it for the requisite duration. They were not mere backgrounds either, but were crafted in close rapport with the singers’ approach to the songs so that there was an unfaltering unity of purpose. There were many things to enjoy in the accompaniments alone from the voices, but to single out one, in Wolf’s Mignon III Kynoch created a hollow, forlorn mood with the repeated fifths in the piano’s bass register that surely harked back to Der Leiermann at the close of Schubert’s Winterreise.

The recital was recorded, and will be released on CD (on the Stone Records label) as part of the final instalments of the Lieder Festival’s project to record all of Wolf’s songs.

Curtis Rogers