London has been pretty fortunate in its Brewer-y over the years, at least on the concert platform, where we have heard her as Britten’s Gloriana, Barber’s Vanessa, Brünnhilde and Isolde; as well as innumerable recitals at the Wigmore Hall where the sheer scale of her instrument invariably tests the already generous acoustic to near-destruction. Alas, such is the casting policy at Covent Garden, she has only ever been heard there the once, as the Countess, effectively barred subsequently from a career on account of her large size, exactly the same thing that kept Deborah Voigt out for years (strange that no such officially unacknowledged aesthetic embargo appears to operate in the house as far as the men are concerned, where Johann Botha, to name merely the current case, is welcome to waddle around willy-nilly).
Like Caballé before her, a bad fall causing severe knee-injury has led to problems; and like Jessye Norman and Pavarotti, the weight issue has taken its toll on her joints, so that she is now a brisk, but uneven walker. Even so, I thought she looked positively radiant at the BBC Symphony Orchestra concert on Saturday, with a sprightly new hairdo that shears some years, and a subtle maquillage that reinforces the impression of agelessness. She also seems to have shed some of the weight that has undoubtedly burdened her in the recent past. Taken together with her simply blinding vocal form on the night, she has clearly found the trick of turning back the clock virtually to the outset of her first fame. She is also clever enough to vary the diet of Wagner and Strauss with which she is now almost exclusively connected, for an audience that has already heard her in plenty of both (though not alas in Die Frau ohne Schatten, left to the lucky Parisians to enjoy in Covent Garden’s ongoing and inexplicable reluctance and/or inability to mount the work). Amusingly, this time it was left to the orchestra alone to provide the Wagner and Strauss, in the shape of the Tannhäuser overture and Eine Alpensinfonie, framing – if that is quite the word for such a gigantic thing as Strauss’ tone-poem – a twenty-five minute sequence of eight orchestral songs by Joseph Marx.
Marx was born in Graz, Austria, in 1882 and thus belongs to the generation immediately after Strauss, whose idiom, it is axiomatic to say, cast such a long and wide-ranging shadow on all those subsequently active in the Austro-German musical world (and elsewhere: listen to Elgar’s “In the South” for some bare-faced “flattery” of the imitative kind). The songs selected by Brewer, which fetch up on her trailblazing Chandos recording released last year, were all written between 1908 and 1912, when Marx was in his mid/late twenties, and might well sound almost avant-garde in their no-holds-barred romantic effusiveness if it weren’t for the fact that these are exactly the years of Strauss’ Elektra and Mahler’s 9th and 10th symphonies. A rather more exact musical analogy to Marx is probably Korngold, another admittedly minor composer, whose effusions, like Marx’s, never seems entirely attuned to his subject matter. But Marx’s songs are in the highest degree grateful specimens for the soprano to perform, nowhere as idiosyncratic or melodically angular as Strauss’ - and nowhere near as demanding, either - with full-bodied orchestral preludes and postludes bookending some very pretty vocal invention and the occasional memorable musical conceit.
Of the eight, by far the most substantial were the two used to open and close proceedings: the other six are relatively short-winded affairs, none beyond two or two-and-a-half minutes duration. Barkarole, on the other hand, is a big-boned, multi-verse, seven minute belter of a song that caught the soprano in finest vocal estate and captured the yearning for love that underpins all Marx’s settings. Though anyone who has seen Brewer in recital has clear evidence of her naturally sparky personality and warmly communicative gift, this has not always extended in performance to detailed character delineation or verbal insight. Here, however, confronted with some very humdrum verses – all Sonnenschein, Liebe and Rosen – she got stuck into the texts with relish, and characterised vocally with sharp distinctions of tone and manner. She even made the third song, Der beschiedene Schäfer – The Shy Shepherd – extremely funny with her pouty disbelief that when left alone with him, nothing happened (when she was plainly hoping for plenty). The elegiac Maienblüten perfectly embodied the spirit of wistfulness inherent in its downtrodden foliage, whilst the larger scale Hat dich die Liebe berührt, with which the group ended, suddenly takes a turn for the Strauss of Zueignung, reaching a stupendous vocal climax on the word “Strahlend” (radiant). And “Strahlend” is an exact description of Brewer’s voice, streaming through the large Barbican Hall like a blaze of sunlight to such an enthusiastic reception that, with no encore planned or rehearsed, she simply repeated the song, in even more refulgent voice than before (Rita Hunter once said that when a soprano got to the end of Götterdämmerung, she should feel that, after a strong cup of tea and half-a-dozen cream buns, she could go back out and sing it all over again: if she didn’t, the repertory wasn’t right for her. Brewer, bless her, is plainly of this persuasion).
In all this orgy of late romanticism, the BBC SO played little short of magnificently – far, far better in the Tannhäuser overture than the ROH band had managed under Bychkov at the opera’s General on Tuesday (and, oddly, coinciding with the actual prima itself on Saturday). And though I am a veteran of countless live hauls up Strauss’ particular Alp – the Zügspitz - I have never heard it as effortlessly played as this – complete with full offstage brass rather than the usual latter-day onstage compromise – or with greater sense of its numinous beauty, for the which all credit must go the orchestra’s chief conductor, Jirí Belohávek, who made a completely seamless entity of the work’s fifty minute duration, feeling here more like twenty, if that. All in all, with Brewer in glorious form, and everything played with passion and precision, guided by an unobtrusive but masterly musician, concerts don’t come any better than this, and certainly haven’t come my way this year (my 127th of 2010, in fact, the current diary at least being to hand).