United Kingdom Schumann, Wagner and Weill: Nina Stemme (soprano), Matti Hirvonen (piano), Wigmore Hall, London 31.3.2014. (JPr)
6 Poems of Nikolaus Lenau and Requiem Op.90
Lied eines Schmiedes
Kommen und Scheiden
Der schwere Abend
Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder
Weill: Nannas Lied; My ship; Das Lied vom Surabaya Johnny
Nina Stemme is well known for her big Strauss and Wagner roles and was a big hit with most critics – less so with me – as Brünnhilde at last year’s BBC Proms. I’m afraid that a showing of her Glyndebourne Isolde is perhaps the only such broadcast I have ever left before the end … I wasn’t reviewing! Her Isolde at Covent Garden in 2009 was also well-received but once again I had reservations and she will repeat the role in Christof Loy’s production in December. This BBC Lunchtime Concert was interesting for me to see how her voice would fare in this repertoire and in the relative intimacy of the Wigmore Hall.
When she began the Schumann I was actually surprised how small her voice actually sounded. I wondered if she had deliberately scaled it down for these 1850 songs that look straightforward ‘on paper’ but require a range of emotions from the singer. They must encompass the contentment of Lied eines Schmiedes (‘Blacksmith’s Song’); the poignancy and anguish of Meine Rose (‘My rose’), Kommen und Scheiden (‘Meeting and parting’) and Der schwere Abend (‘The oppressive evening’); the introspective ruminations of Die Sennin (‘The Cowgirl’) and Einsamkeit (‘Solitude’); and the reflective valedictory religiosity of Requiem, written as a homage to Lenau. These were given thoughtful and deeply expressive responses from Stemme and her accompanist, Matti Hirvonen. Nevertheless, I found her carefully phrased Lieder singing with its characteristic rounded mezzo-ish tone was a little too unvaried, particularly once she upped the volume of her singing – despite the fact she approached everything in the dramatically operatic way I prefer.
My response to Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder was similar to the Schumann though the thoughts of Stemme’s performances as Isolde was never far away because of the two studies for Tristan und Isolde, Im Treibhaus (‘In the greenhouse’) and Träume (‘Dreams’). I have written before about the sense of existentialism than listeners need to experience from great performances of this cycle. Stemme and Hirvonen never approached the ‘out of body’ transcendence necessary; what they did was probably suited more for a bigger hall and some, usually consummate, Wagnerian phrases seemed unduly short-changed.
For me the vocal highlight of the recital was the three Weill songs and Stemme’s two encores, one by Brahms (Meine Leibe ist grün) and another by Weill (Je ne t’aime pas). She generally sang with forceful intensity and raw emotion as if she totally connected with the texts and was trying to get something out of her system. Hopefully she wasn’t reliving something too close to home in her compelling rendition of Weill’s 1929 torch song about an abused woman, ‘Surabaya Johnny’. Nina Stemme was supported by some idiomatic and tempestuous hammerings here by Matti Hirvonen at the piano. Stemme’s voice – now freed from the restraint required by the Schumann or Wagner – seemed more natural and communicative in the Weill.
Finally, I think it must just have been a one-off on the part of the Wigmore Hall since I have not noticed this so much before but I was surprised how on a number of occasions the printed translation offered to the audience did not match the German sung. For me – with a superficial knowledge of the language – it was very noticeable in the Weill songs that may have been the English versions of them but were not a full translation.
For details of concerts at the Wigmore Hall go to http://www.wigmore-hall.org.uk/.
There is a repeat broadcast of this recital on Sunday 6 April at 1pm and it can be heard again on http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/radio/bbc_radio_three . If you think I am wrong in this assessment of the concert do let me know.