A Tale of Hope and Expectation

United StatesUnited States Schumann and Berg: Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 15.4.2015  (BJ)

Schumann: Liederkreis, Op. 39
Berg: Sieben frühe Lieder
Schumann: Frauenliebe und -leben, Op. 42

A part of the high hope with which I went to this recital was fulfilled, but so also was a part of my low expectation.

 How could I have low expectation of a program featuring great Schumann songs for which the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society had invited two performers with formidably high reputations?

 It so happens that they are a soprano and a pianist whose work I had never previously found convincing. Now I am not one of those critics who seem to enjoy nothing so much as having a miserable time. There is nothing I enjoy more in the course of my work than being able to discover, acknowledge, and celebrate virtues in a performer that I have hitherto found lacking. So I arrived at the hall with the hope of loving the way Dorothea Röschmann sang and the way Mitsuko Uchida played.

 In the case of Ms. Uchida, the need of a boost to my appreciation was the more urgent, for the chronicle of my previous disappointments, in both live and recorded performances, was much longer than with Ms. Röschmann. I have reviewed the soprano more than once on the basis of recordings, but would now be hearing her for the first time in concert, which provides a fairer ground for judging an artist’s quality.

 I have been especially unhappy about being unhappy about Ms. Uchida because so many musicians I respect highly—so many great musicians—have clearly regarded her for a long time as an equal. And so I am particularly happy to be able to say that I found her work in this recital admirable in every way. Her tone was beautifully pearly, her phrasing eloquent, her dynamic range well judged, her support of the singer unfailingly sympathetic, and her conception of both Schumann’s and Berg’s piano writing blessedly free from eccentricity and from stylistically inappropriate exaggeration.

 I will say, by way of seeking an explanation for my changed perception on this occasion, that it was precisely music of the period of Schumann—and Chopin—that the performances of Mozart I heard her give in the early years of her career made me feel she would much rather have been playing the other two composers. There was a certain cavalier quality about her Mozart (which I confess I have not heard in quite a long time), a taste for sudden onrushes of emotion, that is much better suited to composers of the following generations.

 It may be, then, that there is a certain range of repertoire fit to bring out all the qualities that others have celebrated in Ms. Uchida, but that past circumstances have not allowed me to detect. Thus far, then, the evening was a story of hope fulfilled.

 I wish I could say the same of this encounter with Ms. Röschmann. Certainly there were beautiful moments in her singing, especially in Frauenliebe und -leben, which received a performance of evident emotional commitment, relatively innocent of the flaws that undermined the effect of Liederkreis and of Berg’s Seven Early Songs.

 But those flaws were serious, and hard to ignore. Imperfect breath control led to several disruptive gaps between words that belong intimately together in the text of the songs, such as the adjective and noun “stillen Klause” in the Liederkeis song “Auf einer Burg.” (Perhaps I should say “unambitious” rather than “imperfect,” because this happened more than once in lines that can surely be sung quite easily in one breath.) When Ms. Röschmann wanted to lend special expressive emphasis to a phrase, she tended to do so by resorting to a kind of so-called chest voice of distinctly unpleasant timbre, seemingly unrelated to her generally appealing tone. When a phrase called upon her to sing both high and loud—“Die Rosen” in the last line of Berg’s “Die Nachtigall” was an extreme example—the effect was similarly harsh, and at times painful to the ear. At the last “Es ist schon spät” in Schumann’s “Waldesgespräch,” her response to the technical challenge degenerated into a generalized outpouring of tone that sounded like not so much the wrong words as no words at all, just undifferentiated tone. And there were one or two moments of queasy intonation, though perhaps not more than a singer may be forgiven for in a demanding program.

 The worst—the overarching—problem, however, was Ms. Röschmann’s bumpily uneven line. Explosions of uncontrolled loudness alternated with words or whole phrases that simply disappeared from audibility. Frequently, the word that received the biggest emphasis in a phrase was the least important word, often the definite article. In Berg’s “Nacht,” of the five syllables of “Stummer Buchenbaum,” it was the relatively throwaway second and fourth that burst out most violently—and this was a case sadly replicated throughout.

 Altogether, then, beside my “gekrönten Hoffnung” about Mitsuko Uchida, whom I shall henceforth go to hear with much more optimism than before, I fear I must regard the reformation of my response to Dorothea Röschmann as, for the moment, unfinished business.


Bernard Jacobson

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