Sumptuous Singing from Anne Schwanewilms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Liszt, R. Strauss, Anne Schwanewilms (soprano), Charles Spencer (piano)., Wigmore Hall, London, 13.3.2014 (CC)

Mahler: Four Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:
Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen;
Ablösung im Sommer;
Ich ging mit Lust;
Verlorne Müh
Liszt :    
Oh! Quand je dors, S282/2.
Lieder aus Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell”, S292/2:
Der  Fischerknabe;
Der Hirt; Der Alpenjäger;
Die Loreley
Mahler:Four Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:
Scheiden und Leiden;
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen;
Lob des hohen Verstandes
R. Strauss: Gedichte aus letzte Blätter:
No. 3, Die Nacht;
No. 5, Geduld;
No. 8, Allerseelen

A second beautifully programmed recital in one week that was imaginative and played absolutely to the performer’s strengths. First, there was Hvorostovsky at the Barbican in Pushkin settings by a variety of Russian composers followed by a mighty song-cycle composed for him that seemed to encapsulate all things Russian. Now came Anne Schwanewilms in repertoire that suited her to a tee and which introduced perhaps some less familiar fare.

 In 2010, Schwanewilms – then with Roger Vignoles – gave a memorable evening of Richard Strauss and Schoenberg. Perhaps this present recital was a little less impressive, not because of the singer or programme, but because it was Charles Spencer who provided the piano part. If Spencer tried a little too hard to project the deliberate awkwardness of the piano gestures in Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen, the humour was perfectly suited to Schwanewilms’ character.

 In fact, the cuckoo of the first song met its demise in the very next item, the intensely Mahlerisch “Ablösung im Sommer”, before “Ich ging mit Lust” introduced us for the first time to the glory of Schwanewilms’ upper register. There are gestures in this song that, at least in this performance, seemed to link to the music of Richard Strauss; this was not only a reminder that it was his music that was to round off the recital, but also that Schwanewilms is a respected Marschallin – she can be seen in this role on both DVD and Blu-Ray in a Dresden Staatskapelle performance captured on tour in Tokyo.

 The song “Verlorne Müh” is a duet that can work effectively as a solo, as long as the singer is blessed with plenty of character – as here. Schwanewilms found beauty, wit and character, in fact, in this brief song that rounded off the first Mahler group.

 A Liszt sequence ended the first part, beginning with the well-known Ah! Quand je dors, in which Spencer warmed his tone well while Schwanewilms span exquisite lines. The uncomfortable divide between singer and pianist was again rather obvious, however: it was Schwanewilms who was completely inside the song, with Spencer rather literal. The four songs from “William Tell” acted as a reminder of the brilliance of Liszt’s songs and how they really should be mainstays of the repertoire. The beautifully flowing “Der Fischerknabe” – with its piano part so full of characteristic Lisztian gestures – rose to restrained rapture, beautifully caught, while in the spirit of programme integration “Der Hirt” contained distinctly Mahlerisch fanfares and gestures. The Lisztian storm that opened “Der Alpenjäger” set the scene for this depiction of the power of Nature before the more extended Die Loreley. This last song of the first half, a Heine setting, is quite an emotional journey, from the peace of the opening – perfect intervals from Schwanewilms – and the ensuing fragility through to the more agitated later stages. It was the perfect way to lead into the break.

 The opening of the second half mirrored that of the first, with a selection of four songs from Des knaben Winderhorn. The arresting piano opening to “Scheiden und Meiden” captured the sense of lowered restraint, especially in the singer’s cried of “Ade!”. Possibly the first really famous Mahler song, “Rheinlegendchen” found Spencer rather unsubtle (he is more so on their recording: see below); Schwanewilms was gorgeously characterful as she spun the tale, rivalling Schwarzkopf in this wonderful song, which is praise indeed. In massive contrast, the desolation of “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” was palpable, its atmosphere fully evoked. Spencer did find an appropriately brash sound for the amusing “Lob des hohen Verstandes”.

 It was fitting, though, that Schwanewilms ended with a crepuscular trio of Strauss songs from the Op. 10 Gedichte aus letzte Blätter. The sheer beauty of “Die Nacht”, the charm and beauty of “Geduld” and the rapture of “Allerseelen” were magnificent. Schwanewilms’ radiant soprano voice is perfectly suited to this repertoire. There was one encore: the delicious “Ach was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen”, Op. 49/8, with its lovely notated humming. This was a lovely way to end.

 Schwanewilms is a superb Straussian; her Mahler and Liszt is not far behind. I would have welcomed a different pianist: but the two have set down songs by the latter two composers on an Onyx disc, entitled “Das Himmlische Leben” (review).

 Colin Clarke