This recital managed to appear in the programme listed under three different rubrics within the Wigmore Hall’s range of activities: as part of the general Song Recital series; part of “Kirchschlager and Friends”; and as part of accompanist Roger Vignoles’ ongoing Strauss Song Series that is steadily unfolding on Hyperion, and which will presumably see the all-Strauss second half of tonight’s recital taken into the recording studio (though, as the Hall’s silence-enjoining management informed us at length, the whole programme is destined for release on the Hall’s own label). “Kirchschlager and Friends” is an appropriate title for an artist whom, I realised tonight, I have never actually encountered singing in solitary recital before, and whom I have invariably heard partnering the likes of Röschmann or Bostridge, Keenlyside or Quasthoff, in whose distinguished company she invariably emerges as much the most personable performer and liveliest presence. Anyone who saw her sassy, aggressively boyish Hänsel at the Royal Opera House, or her sensationally slutty Jenny in Die Dreigroschenoper at the Barbican last year will readily appreciate what a sparky, life-enhancing kind of performer she is, blessed with great vocal gifts, a keen intelligence, an effortless ease of communication and a genuine gift for comedy. Plonk her down, elegantly dressed in slinky black satin, in London’s premiere shrine of Lieder-worship in a programme of sesquicentennial Wolf, followed by Strauss and what could possibly go wrong?
Certainly, the all-Wolf first half, comprising six Mörike Lieder and six Old Tales set to poems by Gottfried Keller, was a success on its own terms, with crystal clear diction and an idiomatic relish for the German texts that was a pleasure to hear in itself. Perhaps the voice, full, warm and womanly and with a slight bias to the lower end of the spectrum, is less directly communicative of emotion than her full-on theatricality of presentation, which does a lot of the work for her: but this is scarcely an uncommon characteristic these days, and not one to belabour in the overall scheme of things. Even so, the rapt stillness of Auf ein altes Bild, or the icy ache of Wie glänzt der helle Mond found no analogue in her actual singing as such, for all that she was visibly doing her damnedest to marshal her resources to express just such analogous states purely sonically. It is left to the physical and visual actress in her – which is tremendous, as anyone who saw her in Maw’s Sophie’s Choice at Covent Garden could attest – fully to convey the desolation or wonder, both bodily and facially, that would in an ideal world be at least as evidently manifested vocally. Still, much emerged to admiration, including a most stentorian lush in Das Köhlerweib ist trunken, and a gamey sense of sexual threat in Tretet ein, hoher Krieger, where you could almost see the sign reading “Dominatrix at Work”. All was set for a second half of unalloyed delight.
It’s very odd, then, and perplexing, to report that one of the pre-eminent Strauss operatic mezzos of our day should have had, relatively speaking, such a torrid time of it technically and even, to an extent, interpretatively. Certainly, Strauss makes vocal demands way beyond anything to be heard in the Wolf songs, blamelessly diatonic and simply strophic as many of them are, but for such an experienced Octavian and Komponist to sound so relatively short-winded, and sing in such lowered keys seemed strange indeed. All four songs comprising Strauss’ Opus 27 – Ruhe, meine Seele!, Cäcilie, Heimliche Aufforderung and Morgen! – were distributed around the two groups sung in the second half (nine songs in total, barely 25 minutes of music) and though I’m loathe to point out the obvious, they were written expressly for (and indeed presented to, on their wedding day) Strauss’ wife Pauline, who was a soprano. Morgen! in particular seemed to me wholly to miss the essential inwardness and floating line of the piece (though how many deeply respectable people, reduced to misty-eyed reverie at the merest mention of the song’s title, actually realise that its author, John Henry Mackay, was a Scots gay-rights activist and that the summit of its sentiment – "Stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen" (silently we will gaze into each other’s eyes) is one man’s expression of love for his male partner? Certainly not Strauss, that’s for sure, even though he had met Mackay in Berlin in 1894, the year of the piece’s composition).
Kirchschlager account of Ruhe, meine Seele! came off much more successfully, partly because it plays to her strengths in slow-moving declamatory music, and partly because it thrives on the ever-darkening sonority the lower it’s transposed. But, pace Roger Vignole’s own notes, it’s a mere thing compared to the absolutely stunning orchestral transcription Strauss himself made of the work more than fifty years after its composition, interrupting work on what became the Vier Letzte Lieder to do so in 1948. And that, I feel, is the problem in a nutshell: would you want to hear a mezzo sing the Four Last Songs, suitably transposed? (Never mind that Schwarzkopf in her famous stereo account did just that to two of them: at least she still sounded incontrovertibly a soprano, in what is quintessential soprano music) Kirchschlager’s problem here, leaving aside the technical challenges of exceptionally awkwardly-written pieces like Meinem Kinde, is finding Strauss songs suitable for a female voice that don’t have Pauline’s shining soprano stamped all over them, even those written a full forty years after she’d stopped singing. The composer may have written some of the greatest mezzo roles in all opera, but in his Lieder, it’s sopranos all the way (and, latterly, bass-baritones, when one of his beloved grandsons married Hans Hotter’s daughter) and no amount of user-friendly transposing will really help.
For all her impish sense of fun, and easy audience rapport - she brushed off with delicious insouciance a momentary difference of opinion as to the matter of key at the start of Mein Herz ist stumm - it seemed to me that something was amiss with the second half of Kirchschlager’s programme, in which the effortless vocalisation and communication of the first had been replaced by difficulty and tentativeness, as if Wolf was an easy sing, but Strauss an altogether trickier proposition (well, of course, he is, imposing on the poetry musically in a way that Wolf rarely does, but that’s not really the point). Even the jokey Für fünfzehn Pfennige, which one would imagine to be a gift on a plate to an artist of her resources, seemed rather laboured in terms of humour, and even somewhat so technically. Something of this was felt by the audience at large, I would say, if the usual round of post-mortems is anything to go by, and though she was well-received, I would put the reception at well this side of modified rapture, including a most precipitate rush for the exits by a number of people one would think would know better the moment the official programme had ended, at barely 9.10pm. They therefore missed the two encores: Wolf’s wry little hymn to sado-masochism, Nimmersatte Liebe – another Mörike setting from 1888 – and Strauss’ Nichts, the second of his Op.10 set of 1885, which ironically therefore predates any of the older composer’s efforts in the genre. Vignoles accompanied sympathetically if a tad clangorously throughout, but went way off the rails in the postlude to Muttertändelei which will need seeing to seriously before this rather unexpectedly and unaccountably patchy recital fetches up on disc.