Pisaroni and Pikulski Impress with Performances of Schubert Lieder

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Beethoven, Mendelssohn: Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone), Maciej Pikulski (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 20.11.2016. (RB)

Schubert – Lieder to texts by Johann Baptist Mayrhofer
Beethoven – Lied aus der Ferne; Der Kuss; Ich liebe dich; Adelaide
Mendelssohn – Lieder to texts by Henrich Heine
Schubert – Heine texts from Schwanengesang; Lieder to texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Italian bass-baritone, Luca Pisaroni, is particularly renowned for his interpretations of Mozart but has increasingly moved into Baroque repertoire, Rossini and Verdi.  He has given a number of recitals recently focusing on the German Lied to considerable critical acclaim.  There is a wonderful dark, masculine quality to his voice and he is clearly a sensitive interpreter of lieder.  Maciej Pikulski is a soloist and chamber musician as well as an accompanist and he clearly has a big technique as well as a keen musical imagination.

The recital opened with four Schubert settings of poems by Mayrhofer who shared lodgings with the composer and was an important cultural mentor.  Pisaroni brought a bracing sturdiness to ‘Der Schiffer’ while Pikulski played the whirling arpeggio figurations with enormous clarity and brilliance.  Occasionally, I would have liked Pisaroni to have injected more lyricism into the vocal line.  There were a few minor balance issues in Memnon and some words and phrases got lost.  Pisaroni invested ‘Fahrt zum Hades’ with dark sepulchral colours and did a superb job ratcheting up the drama in the second stanza while Pikulski’s throbbing triplet accompaniment and sinuous inner melodies were highly atmospheric.  There was some vivid word painting from Pisaroni in ‘Auf der Donau’ while Pikilsuki conjured up some imaginative tone colours and textures from his Steinway.  While there was much to admire here, Pisaroni’s diction could occasionally have been clearer and I would have welcomed a greater sensitivity to the words in general.      

We moved from Schubert to a selection of songs by Beethoven all dealing with aspects of love.  Pikulski used too much pedal in the opening section of ‘Lied aus der Ferne’ while Pisaroni’s vocal line could have been lighter.  I much preferred their performance of Der Kuss where Pikulski gave us some elegant shaping of the line while Pikulski characterised the poem well and brought brought a nice touch of humour to the ending.  Adelaide is one of Beethoven’s most famous songs but I found this performance by Pisaroni and Pikulski to be rather pedestrian and uninvolving.  While the technical execution was fine there did not seem to an emotional connection to the music and it left me rather cold.

The first half concluded with a selection of songs by Mendelssohn which are thankfully featuring much more frequently in the concert hall nowadays.  I was very impressed with Pikulski’s performance of these songs particularly the way he conveyed the hunting horns in ‘Neue Liebe’, the dark agitated backdrop of ‘Allnächtlich im Traume’ and the breathless perpetuum mobile suggesting the horseman’s night time ride in Reiselied.  Pisaroni captured the sweetness and tenderness of ‘Morgengruss’ to perfection and he gave us some gorgeous sustained legato singing in ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’.      

The second half opened with Schubert’s extraordinary Heine songs from Schwanengesang.  The dark timbre of Pisaroni’s voice suited these songs and he gave a compelling performance.  The engulfing, relentless burden of ‘Der Atlas’ was conveyed brilliantly although I would have welcomed a greater range of dynamics from both performers.  Pisaroni’s performance of ‘Ihr Bild was sublime as he moved seamlessly from desolation to heartfelt emotion.  Pikulski’s use of rubato was well judged in ‘Das Fischermädchen’ and both performers collaborated brilliantly to convey the enchantment and biting irony of the song.  I loved the intensity and profound lyricism of ‘Am Meer’ while both performers did a superb job summoning up the surreal, almost unhinged feelings of ‘Die Stadt’.  ‘Der Doppelgänger’ is one of Schubert’s most astonishing songs and it received a shattering performance from Pisaroni.  The whispered opening was full of dark foreboding and the declamations grew in power and intensity until they reached fever pitch.      

The recital concluded with a selection of Schubert songs based on texts by Goethe.  Ganymed was allowed to blossom in an enchanting way and there was a real rapture of delight as he was borne aloft in the final section of the poem.  ‘Erlkönig’ was transformed into a miniature drama and I was impressed with the way in which Pisaroni differentiated the three characters in the poem so effectively and the very sinister way he characterised the Erl King. 

The performers were greeted with enthusiastic applause from the Wigmore audience and performed two more Schubert songs as an encore including An die Musik’.  Overall, this was a slightly uneven recital which was redeemed by the Schubert performances in the second half.

Robert Beattie     

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