We know all too well that the cruel hand of history can grant even highly talented composers a very limited degree of posthumous recognition. In some instances, artists have desperately sought to fight such injustices, and Carl Loewe (1796-1869) has certainly had a plethora of champions to make his case, from Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf to Pregardien and Banse. Yet this contemporary of Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann is hardly a household name, even though CPO has bravely recorded the complete lieder and ballads of Loewe in twenty-one volumes with some first rate Lieder-singers. In his lifetime, Loewe’s songs were well enough known for some to call him the "Schubert of North Germany", and the great Lieder-specialist Hugo Wolf came to admire his work.
It is clear that Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager should also be included in the impressive list of Loewe-lovers. Several years ago, teaming up with Dame Felicity Lott and accompanist Graham Johnson, Kirchschlager performed and recorded a variety of German lieder, including songs by Loewe alongside pieces by Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Wolf. The singers performed this repertoire in a critically acclaimed Wigmore Hall recital last November, and the recording they made for Hyperion back in 2005 (Women’s Lives and Loves, CDA67563, issued 2006) also won great praise, with Hilary Finch boldly claiming that Lott and Kirchschlager’s joint-recital was “as near perfection as I know.” In this (solo) recital by Kirchschlager and pianist Simon Lepper at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, the panoply of German Romantic composers that graced the disc was altered and slightly reduced: Mendelssohn (Felix and Fanny), Loewe, and the even more obscure Franz Lachner (1803-1890). At this recital then, Mendelssohn was clearly the selling point, and although his lieder may not so consistently offer the emotional depth of Schumann, the attractive, lyrical quality that seemed to come to the child prodigy so effortlessly is often present in his vocal works, including the well-chosen selection in this recital.
It was clear from Im Frühling that opened the evening’s music-making that Kirchschlager was not altogether comfortable. This first set of five lieder was plagued by extremely audible and intrusive snatches of breath. In addition, there were some slips of concentration and incorrect words in Wanderlied, which also suffered from a rather flat “Traum” at the end of each of the three verses. Not a great opening bat then. In fact after this first instalment from the male Mendelssohn, Kirchschlager actually made an announcement before continuing with the four lieder by Lachner. She apologised for the word slips and seemed rather embarrassed, explaining that she had had to learn 120 new songs this year. She also said that she wasn’t sure whether or not she was happy singing with or without music (she sang with throughout this recital, arguing that such music, Hausmusik, would have been sung with sheet music rather than from memory). True though this may be, her recital would still have greatly benefited from her knowing the songs well enough to sing from memory. The more a singer looks down at his/her music, the more the audience looks down at the text. If Kirchschlager had sung without music, she could have made twice as many textual errors and nobody would even have noticed. She is such a thrillingly engaging artist, and without the music she would have enthralled every audience member with her vocal magic and stage presence. Even with the music there she still managed to reach the audience effectively, sometimes, but certain items seemed unsure and under-rehearsed.
The Lachner lieder actually fared much better than the opening set by Mendelssohn, both in terms of the audible breathing and how well the pieces were prepared. The Heine texts of these songs will be familiar to many readers from Schumann’s settings in Dichterliebe (‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, ‘Die Rose, die Lilie’, etc.), and Lachner’s songs, while pale in comparison to his contemporary, are fascinating in their Schumannesque characteristics. The piano postludes that concluded each song were particularly reminiscent of the great master and the songs are well worth exploring for this reason alone. Following the Lachner came more Mendelssohn to close the first half. The last two of these elicited undoubtedly Kirchschlager’s finest singing of the evening, throwing caution to the wind and stepping aside from the music stand to enjoy and express every bar of Nachtlied and another Wanderlied. It was in these two songs that the mezzo’s talent for communicating with audiences really shone out, and marvellously so.
Unfortunately, the second half didn’t start where the first left off. Now was the turn of Fanny Mendelssohn. Kirchschlager coped with the fiendishly low tessitura of the first song, Die Mainacht, without short-changing even the deepest of pitches. But alas, the word slips were back, and this time to an even more detrimental effect, singing the opening line (and the very title) of the second song incorrectly: “Ich wandelte unter den Blumen” instead of “Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen”. For the rest of the song I was imagining Kirchschlager as Alice, arguing with the towering flowers of Wonderland. Much as I love Lewis Carroll, this was meant to be Heine, and it rather distracted my attention from the rest of the poem.
The final segment of this recital was dedicated to Loewe, namely five lieder taken from his song-cycle Frauenliebe und –Leben. (On the aforementioned Hyperion recording, Kirchschlager sings all nine songs – Loewe set ‘Nun Hast Du Mir Den Ersten Schmerz Getan’ twice – spread out across the disc’s forty-six tracks). In terms of the music itself, the most successful of these excerpts was ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’, which includes some lovely imitative interplay between voice and piano, almost worthy of Schumann. Even here, Kirchschlager paid a great deal of attention to the printed music, but she concluded the evening more successfully by treating us to a couple of additional items from Loewe’s Vier Fabelieder Op. 64: ‘Der Kuckuck’ and ‘Der verliebte Maikäfer’. As a child, Loewe’s mother would tell him stories about fairies and his sister sang ballads to him. These early dramatic and musical influences were keenly expressed in the final two songs presented here, and it is more than apparent why the composer was compared to Schubert, with whom Loewe clearly shared a great talent for story-telling through music. Kirchschlager also entered story-telling mode for these final pieces, describing the nightingale-cuckoo song contest and the endeavours of the cockchafer wooing his beloved fly with superb characterisation and humour.
Lepper’s accompaniments were consistent in sensitivity and responsiveness. He was also extremely nimble-fingered in some of the brisker items by (Felix) Mendelssohn, with no trips or stumbles throughout the entire recital. He maintained a near-ideal balance, aided by the lovely intimacy of the Howard Assembly Room – just right for this recital of Hausmusik.
In terms of voice then, I have very little criticism to make (save the gasps for breath in the first batch of songs). Kirchschlager’s wonderfully multicoloured voice shows no signs of wear, she soars without strain in her higher range and plunges to the depths of her mezzo with similar ease. Intonation was generally fine, with the odd final word of a phrase sagging slightly every now and again, but not to any great extent and not frequently enough to become an issue. Her phrasing, projection and dynamic range were all appropriate, including some beautifully controlled crescendos and diminuendos. The vocal instrument itself really is in glorious shape - she simply hadn’t prepared some of the songs well enough for performance (and I do stress some). As well as the two concluding lieder of the first half, her encore of Mahler’s take on the Wunderhorn song contest between the cuckoo and the nightingale was a triumph, singing without music for this final piece and acting out the characters brilliantly. If only she had demonstrated this level of commitment to every item in this enjoyable but mixed bag of a recital.