Review – Vier Letzte Lieder. Anne Schwanewilms, BBC Philharmonic & Juanjo Mena.
Review – Vier Letzte Lieder & Arabella, Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier (Excerpts). Anne Schwanewilms, Jutta Böhnert & Regina Richter, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln & Markus Stenz.
Last week I attended the BBC Philharmonic’s first BBC Prom in their run. The concert was Richard Strauss, Saarhio and Sibelius and included the Vier Letzte Lieder performed by Anne Schwanewilms.
I also recently and coincidentally purchased Ms Schwanewilms’ new recital disc of Richard Strauss that includes the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as scenes from three of his operas.
Ms Schwanewilm’s performance at the Proms has drawn a mixed reaction. It has been well documented that on the night she ‘fluffed’ a phrase in the third song, Beim Schlafengehen, and this seems to have been the focus – unfairly I believe – of almost every critique since.
She dropped an octave. Big deal.
People who condemned the whole performance based on that single transitory moment when everything didn’t quite fall into place do the entire performance an injustice.
I was there on the night and also watched the subsequent programme on BBC Four (Not on BBC Two I might add and another example of the BBC marginalizing classical music).
I admit that it was distracting in that single moment but the reality is that Ms Schwanewilms did more than recover and from beginning to end – from the opening phrase to Ist dies etwa der Tod – delivered a strong performance. Granted it has to be said that I did feel that the orchestra and Juanjo Mena were not always completely supportive in their playing. Indeed on the whole I felt that they took a while to warm up although their playing by Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony was back on track and had that Latin lilt that I had previously detected in Mena’s Mahler.
The challenge of singing the Vier Letzte Lieder in the monstrous cavern that is the Royal Albert Hall is that the songs lose much of their effect. As I have said before, the performance of these songs spans everything from the grand operatic gesture from the likes of Jessye Norman and Kirsten Flagstad to the more intimate performances as eschewed by everyone from Schwarzkopf to Te Kanawa.
For me Ms Schwanewilms’ performance at the Proms went even beyond intimacy to almost complete introspection. One critic referred to it as “glacial” but for me it was almost as if we were eavesdropping on a very personal and private moment at times.
Every phrase, every word was carefully placed and for the most part, her vocal control and manipulation of Strauss’ sweeping phrases was incredible. No more so that in the third song when she recovered and delivered a thrilling crescendo on Und die Seele unbewacht.
And after a cheeky smile shared with Mena, Ms Schwanewilms sailed into Im Abendrot and delivered a faultless performance that combined a great sense of musicianship with an inflection of the text that was masterful.
And the audience saw beyond the hiccup and applauded her performance both warmly and enthusiastically.
As an aside it was only when watching an interview with the singer during the BBC Four broadcast that I realized that Ms Schwanewilms was not in fact on top form on the night.
But if anyone wants further demonstration of her vocal abilities then listen to her new disc of the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as excerpts from Capriccio, Arabella and Der Rosenkavalier.
This is the second time – I believe – that she has recorded these songs. The first was with Mark Elder and the Halle and now she has recorded them with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Markus Stenz.
Here Ms Schwanewilms is on incredible form. While it is a studio recording, there is a vocal and orchestral sense of breadth and expansiveness that is missing from her live performance with the BBC Philharmonic and Mena and even from her performances with Elder.
Her voice is warm with a real sense of flexible strength throughout its range. And at the same time she displays an agility in terms of both dynamic range and vocal colour that is rare in today’s singers.
And as Ms Schwanewilms revels in the vocal lines written by Strauss as a valedictory homage to his favourite instrument, Stenz and the orchestra are always there right beside the soprano, intuitively following her phrasing as well as the light and shade in her voice.
And again – because Ms Schwanewilms is such an intelligent and thoughtful performer – it is never to the detriment of the words. Each word is carefully placed and coloured. Just listen to the closing bars of September for example, and even just the focus on Augen. Wondrous. And even more so as the horn soloist floats in afterwards.
And just as at the proms, Und die Seele unbewacht is an object lesson not only in vocal mastery but thoughtfulness as Ms Schwanewilms keeps the momentum going when most sopranos let the subsequent phrases lapse.
Im Abendrot is taken at a stately pace but not once is there any sense that Schwanewilms, the orchestra and Stenz are anything but in total control. And of course – and just as at the Proms – at Ist dies etwa der Tod singer and orchestra are faultless and – if I am not mistaken – Stenz slows the tempo ever so slightly to allow Ms Schwanewilms to place the final words with heartfelt emotion before leading the orchestra with great poise and warmth through the closing bars.
I think I own almost every recording available of the Vier Letzte Lieder. This recording by Ms Schwanewilms ranks in the top three.
I would happily recommend this disc on these four songs alone but Ms Schwanewilms performances in the excerpts from Arabella, Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier are just as exceptional and thrilling.
It can never be a simple matter for either performers singing excerpts or those listening to successfully engage emotionally in the music. But this isn’t the case here at all.
I have to admit that I am a late convert to Arabella. It escapes me exactly why as the music is glorious and in the hands of as great a performer as Ms Schwanewilms my love of this scene – Das war sehr gut, Mandryka – is raised even higher. Stenz and the orchestra open the scene with such warmth and grace while avoiding the sense of cloying emotion that often invades this scene. In fact there are moments of real menace in the orchestral introduction before Ms Schwanewilms’ hushed first entry. From thence it is a performance of great eloquence and musical stature. Demonstrating the depth of her talent, each phrase is beautifully and fluidly spun out without any hint of stress across the wide vocal range required. And while she may be penitent there is a steeliness that makes me think that Schwanewilms’ Arabella is not a total pushover.
In Capriccio the closing monologue of this opera is seen simply as an opportunity for ‘beautiful sound’ and as such often comes across as an awkward postscript to the entire opera. Not so for Schwanewilms and Stenz who find the right balance between the Countess’ introspection and the drama that is still unfolding. There is no sense of sentimentality here.
Listen for example as the Countess sings the aria that has been composed for her and how Stenz drives the music onwards immediately after at Ihre Liebe schlägt mir entgegen. It’s as if the Countess cannot even stop for breath as her emotions tumble out until those closing bars as she looks at her reflection. Then – and only then – does Stenz pull back once again to afford Ms Schwanewilms the space to give due care and attention to the words.
Whether the word or music finally prevail I cannot say. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Ms Schwanewilms has worked it out.
Finally, the closing trio from Der Rosenkavalier is – even in the music of Richard Strauss – in a league of its own. That it was performed at his funeral says it all really. Joined by Jutta Böhnert and Regina Richter even the slightly recessed sound at the very opening cannot distract. Again here Stenz goes for an expansiveness of tempo that allows the phrases to play out beautifully and each of the protagonists to be heard equally as their counterpoint unfolds. And singers, orchestra and conductor move inexorably through the crescendo as equal partners to the Marschallin’s final In Gottes Namen.
Brilliant and a suitably thrilling end to a hugely enjoyable recital disc that underlines the immense and intelligent musicianship of Anne Schwanewilms.
Even if you own more than one copy of the Vier Letzte Lieder as well as the other excerpts on this disc this is a recital not to be missed.
A definite “must have”.