lietofinelondon

Wagner’s Wesendonck In Washington

In Classical Music, Review, Richard Wagner on October 14, 2012 at 8:18 am

Review – Wesendonck Lieder (Wagner, orch. Henze) & Symphony No. 7 in E Major (Bruckner)

Nathalie Stutzmann (Contralto)
National Symphony Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach (Conductor/Music Director)

It’s been some time since I have seen Nathalie Stutzmann in concert, so while vacationing in Washington DC I seized the opportunity to see her in concert. I have her recital CDs of Handel and Vivaldi as well as her performance of Brahms’ Alton Rhapsody. For me she has always been the most attentive and intelligent of singers which she combines with a keen flair for, and innate ability of, conveying the emotions behind the music. I also read in the programme that Ms Stutzmann will soon release a recital disc ‘dedicated’ – as the notes put it – to Bach which I look forward to purchasing as I can’t believe it will be any less brilliant than her more recent disc of arias by Vivaldi.

Similarly, as well as having numerous of his recordings, the last time I saw Christoph Eschenbach was in London with Renée Fleming in a memorable performance of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder. As with Ms Stutzmann, the maestro is a ‘details’ man, delving deeply into the score to reveal the intricacies and beauty within. In the aforementioned concert, his was an intelligent and thoughtful interpretation of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony surpassed only by his support of Ms Fleming in Strauss’ song cycle.

Therefore the opportunity to spend an evening at the Kennedy Center to hear Ms Stutzmann sing Wagner’s gem-like Wesendonck Lieder accompanied by Eschenbach was too good an occasion to pass up.

Additionally, more accustomed as I am to the more often performed Wesendonck Lieder in the version by Wagner/Mottl the concert afforded the chance to hear the songs in Henze’s 1976 arrangement. He arranged the five songs for alto and chamber orchestra including alto lute, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon as part of the usual ensemble and this was the first time that the National Symphony Orchestra performed this version.

And indeed the sound world created by Henze is notably different from the more commonly heard version. His sparser orchestration relies instead on the individual colours created by the ensemble and in particular a greater focus on the wind instruments and French horns. In a sense, Henze’s view of the Wesendonck Lieder is bleaker – not only bled of the lush romanticism normally associated with the cycle as most recently heard under Mena and the BBC Philharmonic, but of the very air that surrounds the songs themselves.

Yet the overall effect and the instrumental colours spun by Henze are unique and magical and of course mean that the words of Mathilde Wesendonck’s poetry are not so much revealed as exposed.

Therefore a performance of Henze’s arrangement not only requires a singer in possession of the most steadfast and confident technique but also a singer of incredible musicianship and emotional intelligence who is able to mine both words and music and deliver a compelling performance.

And that is exactly what Ms Stutzmann, supported by Eschenbach, delivered – an impassioned yet emotionally alert performance, perfectly in synch with the orchestra surrounding her.

Nathalie Stutzmann is a real contralto. Her voice is rich and even throughout its wide range with an incredibly attractive – sensual in fact – sonority in its lowest register but without any sense of strain as she moves up to the top of her range.

From the opening bars of Der Engel, Henze’s sound world was radically sparse – the violins seemed used so sparingly throughout for example – and this was exacerbated by Eschenbach’s incredibly slow tempo. I remember how slow he took the opening of the Vier Letzte Lieder with Fleming, but this was even more daringly slow. It was almost as if he was determined that the audience to come to terms with how radically different Henze’s arrangements really were. And indeed Eschenbach even seemed to s,ow and become more expansive at ‘Da der Engel nieder schwebt’ without – it seemed – any loss in momentum.

The tempo was picked up for Stehe Still! With both the ensemble and singer communicating a real sense of desperation. But Eschenbach and Stutzmann remained forever alert to the words and accordingly slowed for the third stanza. Indeed Ms Stutzmann’s handling of the text was marvellous. There was a real sense of hushed wonder at Wenn Aug’ in Auge wonnig trinken with a broadening and the greatest sense of poise as she guided the audience through to the end, indeed her unaccompanied (Keinen Wunsch mehr will) das Inn’re zeugen seemed to hang in air.

In Im Triebhaus Henze’s truly captured the sense of desolation. In this – so clearly linked to the final act of Tristan – his use of muted horns, harp and violas was a real feat of beautifully sensitive orchestration, capturing the light and shade of the poem with such a focused orchestral palette. And Ms Stutzmann matched the ensemble with her incredible vocal control of the songs sinuous phrases. Her sense of word painting at word painting at Und der Leiden strummer Zeugen was remarkable for example before Eschenbach urged a slight quickening of tempo for the third stanza.

And the poignancy of fourth stanza’s Wohl Ich weiss es, arme Pflanze and careful placing of Unsre Heimat is Nicht hier! again underlined how immersed Ms Stutzmann was in the performance,

Schmerzen – which often can be the weakest of the song cycle – was carried to its final bars by Eschebach’s and Stutzmann intelligent and persuasive control of the song’s dynamic and rhythmic momentum. The two crescendi in the second stanza were carefully managed so that the closing vocal line at O wie dank’ich was not undermined before Eschenbach faded the orchestra away.

But it was in Träume that the translucent orchestral writing – dolefully wrapped around the vocal line – was truly marvellous. And Eschebach’s gentle lilting tempo underlined Stutzmann’s careful attention to the words as each repetition of Träume was more insistent Until the closing bars where, after the soloist had almost sighed und damn sinken in den Gruft, Henze’s delicate arrangement dissipated ethereally away.

It was a remarkable performance, not only because of Ms Stutzmann’s performance but for the committed and intelligent support of Eschenbach and the members of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Interestingly the audience’s response was – while not muted – somewhat hesitant to start with. Perhaps Henze’s arrangement and Ms Stutzmann’s impassioned performance was not what they expected.

It was a disappointment therefore that it was a concert of unequal halves as the orchestra’s subsequent performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony felt just slightly under the boil.

This was a shame, not only after such an incredible first half but because it was clear that Eschenbach – conducting without a score – had a clear grasp of the overall architecture of the work as well as the intricacies buried within it. On the podium he seemed determined to drive Bruckner’s symphony forward despite his orchestra’s inability – or reticence – to follow resulting in what can only be described as a very mannered performance.

The opening certainly held promise but it very quickly disappeared. Most distractingly there was consistent and surprisingly imprecision in the First Violins. This manifested itself for example in indecisive, almost shy, entries – particularly in the first and final movements or – or intonation problems. And in the Adagio, their first chorale entry was completely marred by overtly aggressive and over-emphasised vibrato and on the whole the orchestra seemed almost distracted.

Interestingly it was the Finale, which often can sound curiously like an incomplete afterthought, that seemed almost the most successful movement. It’s careful moulding by the maestro only ultimately let down in the final bars by some untidy playing in the brass section.

I was surprised when members of the audience gave the orchestra a standing ovation until I heard the person next to me quip that a Washington audience would give the ‘reading of a menu’ a standing ovation.

Indeed even Eschenbach seemed surprised at the audience’s reaction as he took a bow.

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