Youthful Vitality in Schubert Lieder Performances

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – The Schubert Project. Christiane Karg (soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Joseph Middleton (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 21.10.2014. (CR)

Schubert: An die Laute, D905
An die Musik, D547
Das Mädchen, D652
Nähe des Geliebten, D162
Das Marienbild, D623
Die Liebe hat gelogen, D751
Du liebst mich nicht, D756
Lambertine, D301
Der Flug der Zeit, D515
Liebe schwärmt auf allen Wegen, D239 no.6
Fülle der Liebe, D854
Thekla ‘Eine Geisterstimme’, D595
Lieb Minna, D222
Grablied auf einen Soldaten, D454
Abendbilder, D650
Der Mondabend, D141
Alinde, D904
Hoffnung, D637
Elysium, D584


Here was a recital given by three young and musically intelligent artistes, of whom it is fair to say that Andrew Staples and Joseph Middleton are still rising stars. Christiane Karg is much more widely known, but from her as well as the other two, there came performances of youthful vitality and vigour. All three generally evoked the right mood or character for each song, Karg’s singing often marked by an innocence and radiance, Stapes by a warmly lyrical tone, and Middleton’s accompaniments with a liveliness that often enabled them to take on the role of a protagonist in their own right: for example the dramatic interludes in Fülle der Liebe.

Karg frequently demonstrated the dramatic possibilities of the songs she performed – for example, moving from tenderness and delicacy in Das Mädchen to an almost forced yearning later on, a radiantly projected tone in Nähe des Geliebten, or overt passion and urgency in the brief Liebe schwärmt auf allen Wegen and Elysium. However, she possibly became somewhat tired in the second half of the programme as there was less idiomatic characterisation in Thekla ‘Eine Geisterstimme’ and Lieb Minna. She certainly offered some softly beautiful singing here, but there was not enough variation in tonal quality, seemingly because she was reluctant to allow her singing to blossom out from the directness of the head voice with which she sang, into something fuller and broader toned. In the first half, the speaker’s realisation in Lambertine that her lover does not return her feelings surely demanded a deeper note of grief than just the vocal radiance Karg evinced here.

There was something of a similar drawback to some of Staples’s interpretations too. Certainly he also demonstrated a perfectly accomplished ability to explore the meaning and emotional significance of some of the songs with imagination and insight – such as the passion demonstrated in Das Marienbild (revealed to be not simply a devotional song) or the melodic daintiness of Der Flug der Zeit. Moreover, his voice was marked by an attractive lyricism, which is well suited to the idiom of many of Schubert’s songs. However, some other performances here were less nuanced and perhaps tended to sound merely blandly mellifluous, rather than dramatically cogent. It was undoubtedly impressive to hear the magical, rising scale in Du bist die Ruh (given as an encore) reach its zenith cleanly and securely. But much of the song was sung at a constant mf dynamic, so that there was little sense of arrival or climax. Likewise with Alinde. Fortunately, though, in neither Staples’s nor Karg’s case will this be an insuperable problem, as they showed clearly that they are fully capable of sensitive and stimulating performances.

The same holds true for Middleton too. A certain youthful impetuosity served some of the music well. At other times, more mellowness or restraint would have been better, but that will come in time. Certainly the warm, lulling repeated notes in Alinde demonstrated a genuine Schubertian sensibility, and the tolling of the bell in the third verse of Abendbilder was skilfully integrated into the pianistic texture. Also to Middleton’s credit was the fact that his accompaniments always sounded fluent and natural rather than forced, and that quality definitely goes a long way in Schubert lieder.

Such critical comments as are expressed here are not meant to be negative or discouraging, but rather it is hoped that they are taken as constructive observations, since the standard of all three performers was generally very high indeed.

Curtis Rogers

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