A Wonderful Outpouring of Romantic Song from Werner Güra and Christoph Berner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Brahms: Werner Güra (tenor); Christoph Berner (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 25.4.2016. (CC)

R. Schumann, Lieder, Op. 127; Kerner-Lieder, Op. 35

Brahms, Deutsche Volkslieder: Es reit ein Herr und auch sein Knecht; Schwesterlein; Es steht ein Lind; Jungfräulein, sol lich mit euch gehn; Da unten im Tale

C. Schumann Sie liebten sich beide, Op. 13/2. Warum willst du ad’re fragen, Op. 12/3; Geheimes Flüstern, Op. 23/3. Er ist gekommen, Op. 12/2

This recital offered a wonderful outpouring of Romantic song from Werner Güra and his young accompanist, Christoph Berner. In January 2002, my colleague Melanie Eskenazi was less than enthusiastic about this particular singer/pianist combination, and on this occasion despite Güra’s good name, the hall was far from full. That was a shame in some ways, as the programming was fascinating, and there was much of beauty to be enjoyed.

As Richard Wigmore put it in his booklet notes, the first three songs are “discards” from his year of song, 1840, and the first of these, Sängers Trost, was originally scheduled to be part of the Kerner-Lieder. It’s a reflective song tinged with sadness; Güra’s voice was perfect and lovely for the song. There was the distinct impression that singer was better than pianist, however, as Berner’s contribution bordered on the literal. Best of the first set of five songs, Schumann’s Op. 127, was the fourth, Mein altes Ross, piano chords assertive and perfectly together, and Güra mightily focused. The final song, the short Schlußlied des Narren -August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s translation of Shakespeare (“When that I was and a little tiny boy”) – is remarkably jaunty and, here, beautifully rhythmic.

The darker, more autumnal hues of Brahms complement Schumann perfectly. Here, a selection of Deutsche Volkslieder, WoO33 offered a most alluring side of Brahms’ output: occasionally phantasmagoric, sometimes beautifully flowing (Schwesterlein), sometimes shot through with sadness (Es steht ein Lind), always somehow bitter-sweet. It was great to see some Clara Schumann songs here, too, and to hear them just before the interval, so they resonated in our ears over the break. Sie liebten mich beide is a famous song, while the meltingly lyrical Warum willst du and’re fragen holds much beauty, especially with Güra’s combination of sweet tone and pure phrasing. Both pianist and singer found the intimate heart of Geheimes Flüstern, even if Berner over-projected the final phrase. The stormy, tricky Er ist gekommen, a superb song, with its bittersweet final verse, was the best of the set from a performance perspective, caught on the wing.

Schumann’s Kerner-Lieder is a terrific set (the title refers to the poet), and the Wigmore Hall Live CD series holds a gem of a performance by Roderick Williams (review). Güra gave a mixed account: the opening song, ‘Lust der Sturmnacht’ could have been stormier. Güra and Berner’s script was clearly to crescendo to the song’s climax, but the result was an under-honoured opening. The second song, ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Frud!’ is low for a tenor, and Güra triumphed; the ensuing ‘Wanderlied’ continued the good work with a carefree gait. It was nice to hear the enigma of ‘Erstes Grün’ acknowledged fully, too, and the warm longing of ‘Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend’, with Güra exhibiting great legato towards the song’s close. It was the sense of calm towards the end, in ‘Stille Tränen’, that lingered beautifully in the memory, as did the delicious dissonance of ‘Wer macht dich so krank?’ and the stillness of the final ‘Alte Laute’, its success due in no short measure to Güra’s phenomenal breath control.

There was one encore, and, rightly, it was a song by Clara Schumann: her Ich stand in dunkel Träumen, Op. 13/1: slow, lyrical and utterly delicious.

Colin Clarke