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Lieder Less

In Classical Music, Review on June 30, 2013 at 9:58 am

Review – Wagner 200 – Lieder by Wagner & His Contemporaries (Wagner200)

Janice Watson (Soprano)
Joseph Middleton (Piano)

It’s rare to hear anything but Wagner’s Wesendonck lieder in performance but as part of their bicentennial celebrations, Wagner 200 programmed an evening of his lesser known songs wrapped around songs by his contemporaries Liszt and Schumann.

My heart always sinks slightly when the performer talks during a concert. It works when there is a clear and well-prepared narrative reason but when it seems ad hoc – and at times not all that well informed – it simply jars.

But there was a kernel of an idea that should have been developed. A well-written narration could have taken the audience on a proper journey through Wagner’s lieder and their relationship not only to his operas but also in relation to his contemporaries and their influence on the composer.

Sadly what should have been an musically rewarding and interesting evening was ultimately marred by less than secure performances on the whole.

By the end of the evening I was not convinced that Janice Watson had been the most convincing interpreter of either the early Wagner songs not those of Schumann and Liszt. I left feeling that perhaps this was mainly because they didn’t elicit the kind of performances that come from them being part of a regular repertoire.

And in some ways the ambition of the repetoire was slightly beyond Ms Watson as well. There was a definite sense of strain not only in terms of the higher raches of her vocal range but also in sustaining the longer spans of the vocal line.

Wagner’s Adieux de Marie Stuart, so clearly inspired by French grand opera proved a particular challenge for Watson. Not only was her French – as in all the songs performed in this language – less than clear but she also clearly struggled with the music itself, chopping phrases, stretching for the top notes and hacking her way through the coloratura.

There lack of colour – the light and shade – in the singing was also more than once cruelly exposed. Affecting those it was, La tombe dit à la rose particularly laid bare these vocal frailties that followed through to the performances from Schumann’s Liederkreis.

Here particularly I felt that Ms Watson didn’t get beyond the notes. At I did wonder why perhaps Ms Watson hadn’t shared the stage with a male colleague. As she herself said, these songs are more often – and more effectively – sung by a male singer. Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden and Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen in particular lacked the necessary poignancy and depth.

Indeed perhaps the most convincing performance before the ‘main article’ was Melodram not as much an oddity as Ms Watson assumed considering melodramas had been popular in German since before the Benda brothers and continued after Wagner with works such as Strauss Enoch Arden

And so the programme ended with the Wesendonck Lieder. It was clear that here Ms Watson was on firmer ground and that this quintet of songs form a central part of her repertoire. To be sure her performance of these lieder – and her Liszt encore – contained some of the most compelling singing of the evening. Phrases were beautifully shaped for the most part and there was a greater sense of musicianship. But even then I felt – despite some compelling moments – that she rarely got beyond the notes being sung consistently. And again there were times when her voice clearly showed signs of strain and stress.

However it was the final song of the programme that proved the most magical. For from somewhere, Ms Watson pulled out what was needed for a serene performance of Träume.

Throughout Joseph Middleton was a sympathetic accompanist and in truth created a great deal more colour in his playing. He instinctively drew out the sonorities in the lieder – his playing in the Wesendonck lieder was exquisite.

Yet in the end however the recital personally left me more with a sense of what could have been rather than what was delivered. Wagner200 contains some great insight events and I did leave wondering why that hadn’t been applied here. An evening that took the audience through the lieder of Wagner and his contemporaries, perhaps using it as an opportunity to showcase some up and coming singers as well as shedding light on both the composers and their lieder, would have been a much more satisfying option.

And perhaps it would have left Janice Watson to simply focus on the performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. I think they would have benefited from greater attention.

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