Musical Sincerity from Magisterial Mauro Peter and Selfless Helmut Deutsch

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Schubert, Liszt: Mauro Peter (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano), Opernhaus, Zurich, 28.5.2018. (CCr)

Helmut Deutsch and Mauro Peter (c) Wigmore Hall

Schubert – ‘An Silvia’, ‘Stimme der Liebe’, ‘Dass sie hier gewesen’, ‘Über Wildemann’, ‘Die Liebe hat gelogen’, ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’, ‘Im Frühling’, ‘Die Sterne’, ‘Hoffnung’, ‘Fischerweise’, ‘Auf der Bruck’

Liszt – ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’, ‘Es war ein König in Thule’, ‘Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’’, ‘Vergiftet sind meine Lieder’, ‘Die stille Wasserrose’, ‘Ihr Glocken von Marling’, ‘Die drei Zigeuner’; Tre Sonetti del Petrarca (‘Benedetto sia ’l giorno’, ‘Pace non trovo’, ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’)

How very satisfying it is to see a young singer, in the early stages of a major operatic career, nurse a commitment to Lieder and to all the slow, humble work it entails. Swiss lyric tenor Mauro Peter, barely 30 and already making a name for himself in Mozart’s German and Italian operas, nearly filled the parterre and a row or two in the balconies for a very warm homecoming back to Zurich. The voice of Tamino and Don Ottavio found an occasion here and there to slip out in his devoted renderings of Schubert and Liszt, but otherwise the music here was far sparer than operatic – effusive not via lushness but via distillation. Peter is already highly adept at the dense vocal potency that Lieder needs. Indeed, the entire evening was an argument in favour of circling back around the intimate “things within things”, as Jonathan Franzen said of Alice Munro, amidst all the surplus and flashiness of opera. That’s the reason to keep singing Lieder: the more you return to it, the more you find.

The programme was excellently chosen. Here comes Herr Peter, in tails, with a huge aw-shucks smile on his face, which he was unable to shake during any of the copious applause. He opened with Schubert, first a strophic, Shakespearean ode to beauty (‘An Silvia’) which is musically splendid the way Emma Thompson’s face is splendid. The sequence of Schubert songs contrasted each other brilliantly, with short abutting long, strophic preceding through-composed, major after minor. Cumulatively, it was like listening to an ad hoc cycle. The choices tilted towards the happier, though, which suited such a cheerful singer and his summer audience. The final Schubert piece, for example, was ‘Auf der Bruck’, a sort of anti-Erlkönig of similar swiftness, but the speeding horse of this song is headed not towards death but to an old flame, and to the potential of love amidst wounded doubt.

Three of the eleven Schubert songs were strophic ones set to poetry by Ernst Schulze, whose Romantic lyrics about forests and snow and suffering hearts set Schubert’s course towards his later Winterreise. Hearing these particular songs together, dispersed amongst more familiar ones (Goethe’s ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’, say), gave the listener an excellent sense of Schubert’s general accomplishment and approach with the art song, and specifically of Schubert’s knife’s-edge harmonic teetering between joy and anguish. Schulze’s ‘Über Wildemann’, ‘Im Frühling’, and ‘Auf der Bruck’ all serve this tense balance spectacularly well, and their quick tempi – only Schubert could wedge five verses into two minutes and still fling out a miniature piano concert in the accompaniment – kept the whole of the Schubert set fleet and intense.

An exception for proof: ‘Hoffnung’ (D 637, not the superior D 295) was a musical telling of a stridently optimistic poem by Friedrich Schiller, and was quite out of place. Indeed, this was the least convincing singing from Peter, his emotional and vocal palate not being up to the task of making this song interesting. Aw, shucks.

After an interval the Liszt set began, and was again an extremely well curated list of songs. The listener’s first impression is that piano music from Schubert to Liszt expanded out across the 88 keys, perhaps less intimate, perhaps more decorated, but with equal power for beauty and expression. One soon hears that Schubert may have had an unmatchable inwardness and power to sulk in beauty, but that Liszt is still his peer. The transition from composer to composer was made gentle by the set’s entrance, ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’, which Peter sang with the gentlest phrasing possible without turning precious. Peter’s Liszt triumph: ‘Es war ein König in Thule’, a sombre Goethe ballad of a goblet, a king, and a death that doesn’t part. The singing was perfectly magisterial, achieved by faultless diction and a musical commitment to every twist and turn in the poetic message.

Two songs in the Liszt showed Peter’s youth: ‘Vergiftet sind meine Lieder’ (text by Heine), which he sang without the pointed gravitas the song called for, though his straightforward approach still yielded a lovely song. Should anyone offer Mauro Peter a chance to sing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, his answer should be: not yet. Nor was his ‘Ihr Glocken von Marling’ quite where it would need to be, which is to say, musically whispered in your ear, then gazed into your eyes. Lieder can last less than a minute, less than ten lines of verse; blink and you’ll miss it. Peter should come back to Marling for another glance.

If I haven’t written much about Mauro Peter’s actual voice, it is for a few reasons: he has an excellent one, but not one of those barcode sounds that your brain scans in the opening notes and recognises indelibly. It is neither huge nor small, neither very nasal nor chesty; the top is not so pingy and the sinews of the most lyrical lines do not always unwind effortlessly.

This is why I am so enthusiastic to hear him singing Lieder in his native tongue: it is excellent terrain for a younger singer to master details, diction, musical sincerity. Peter’s growing mastery here is apparent. As he moves to bigger and more varied repertoire, with Italian arias that sit higher in his voice and stretch him thin over serpentine ascents, he will need all of the devoted musicianship he displayed when singing Lieder. The final Tre sonetti del Petrarca attest to this. He sang them poignantly, lyrically, and well. I would love to hear them again in five years once Peter has spent more time with this repertory.

As to the accompaniment: the initials HD stand both for Helmut Deutsch and for High Definition, and for what it’s worth can also mean high-density, hybrid drive, Heidelberg and heavy duty. Deutsch’s playing, as it happens, is all of those things and more. Peter is extraordinarily lucky to have an accompanist as selfless, as skilful, as soulful as Deutsch. Why are we lucky enough to get a pianist of this calibre for Zurich’s terrific Liederabende? Deutsch’s biography made a point of mentioning in the programme notes his investment in younger artists. Perhaps he would find it immodest to give more solo concerts, perhaps he simply loves his Lieder. With Deutsch at the piano, I know I do.

Casey Creel

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