A Disappointing Recital by Elīna Garanča

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Berg and Strauss: Elīna Garanča (mezzo-soprano) and Malcolm Martineau (piano). Barbican Hall, London, 21.10.2014. (JPr)

Schumann: ‘Widmung’, Op.25, No.1
‘Der Nussbaum’, Op.25, No.3
‘Jemand’, Op.25, No.4
‘Lieder der Braut aus dem Liebesfrühling I’, Op.25, No.11
‘Lieder der Braut aus dem Liebesfrühling II’, Op.25, No.12
‘Frauenliebe und leben’, Op.42
Seit ich ihn gesehen
Er, der Herrlichste von allen
Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben
Du Ring an meinem Finger
Helft mir, ihr Schwestern
Süsser Freund, du blackest
An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust
Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan

Berg:  Sieben frühe Lieder

R. Strauss:‘Leises Lied’, 5 Lieder, Op.39, No.1
‘All mein’ Gedanken, mein Herz und mein Sinn’, Op.21, No.1
‘Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden’, Op.21, No.3
‘Meinem Kinde’, Op.37, No.3
‘Allerseelen’, Op.10, No.8
‘Heimliche Aufforderung’, Op.27, No.3

The Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča records exclusively for DG and her recent CD release is called Meditation. It appears to include an interesting, eclectic, selection of music  by Gounod, Mascagni, Mozart, Bizet, Puccini, Adam, Allegri, Caccini, and others which she is currently publicising in a series of concerts throughout Austria and Germany conducted by her husband, Karl Mark Chichon. Despite a CD signing after this performance, unfortunately (the emphasis is deliberate) this is not the music she brought to a barely half-full Barbican, and we were presented with a low-key recital programme of Schumann, Berg and Richard Strauss in a concert postponed from this April.

Elīna Garanča is one of the world’s leading lyric mezzos but while this was a perfectly accomplished evening there was little to really set her apart from any number of similar singers. In the first half of the concert her voice seemed rather small-scale and contralto-like and even if it did open up after the interval never did the temperature of her songs ever rise above cool. She seemed unwilling to release any real emotion in songs about romance, love, motherhood and mourning: she is clearly a fine singer but a poor communicator on the recital platform. Of course this may depend on how you prefer your Lieder to be sung; for me, each is often a mini-drama and the voice should express the meaning of the text so the piece is not just notes that need singing. It was interesting that before the first of two encores, a Latvian song by Jāzeps Vītols that I believe is called in English ‘Close Your Eyes and Smile’, Ms Garanča made a joke about the relief of now singing in her own language and not in German. In fact her diction had been impeccable and, of course, this should not be a reason why she did not seem to connect with the rest of her songs, yet now it was clear she was singing with the true feeling that was often missing before. Strauss’ very familiar ‘Morgen!’ was eloquently sung as a second encore when something more ‘upbeat’ might have been expected.

Elīna Garanča’s programme of Lieder began with a rather laid-back ‘Widmung’; ‘Der Nussbaum’ followed and was well-floated and when the text mentioned ‘whisper’ her voice did just that and so the pattern was set for the entire evening – evidence of precise preparation, impeccable vocal control but all a little bland. Next was many a female recitalist’s favourite song cycle, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben with its nineteenth-century model of marital bliss. Again, here, as Ms Garanča took us on the narrator’s journey – from love at first sight, burgeoning passion, becoming a mother, to despair and grief – never did she present a real woman, which surprised me. In ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ when the husband has died the line ‘Die Welt is leer’ (‘The world is void’) was indeed sung as if the bottom had dropped out of her world and this connection of words and music is what I needed more of in the rest of her songs. Significantly, Martin Martineau’s spare, elegiac, postlude was one of the finest musical moments of this first half of the recital.

What followed after the break was immediately more interesting because the first notes of ‘Nacht’ from Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder so clearly inspired Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ – who knew there was this connection? (In fact if you do Google there is quite a lot about Gershwin being inspired by Berg and other classical composers but very rarely do programme notes ever mention anything interesting like this … and it was no different at this concert.) In these ‘Seven Early Songs’ we heard what was probably Elīna Garanča’s best singing of the evening as they are intrinsically more dramatic than anything Schumann composed. Her voice revealed a much greater range than had been evident before and with the rather chromatic vocal lines often leaping into her upper range she revealed some impressive top notes even if her interpretations did lack a certain worldliness that some singers might bring to them.

The final Strauss songs were a disappointment despite Ms Garanča having all the vocal resources need for the composer’s operatic phrases. ‘All’ mein Gedanken, mein Herz und mein Sinn’ was lighter in tone than some of the rest of her songs but lacked the playful abandon it might benefit from. In her final song, ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’, written by Strauss to celebrate his marriage to the soprano, Pauline de Ahna, the rush of arpeggios needed rather more ecstasy than Ms Garanča could bring to them despite Martin Martineau’s wonderful, often understated, accompaniment here – as elsewhere – in this recital.

Jim Pritchard

For future events at the Barbican visit www.barbican.org.uk.