However no such problems appeared to affect Susan Bullock who must now be reckoned the prime British soprano of this fach. Indeed she seemed to revel in the communicative opportunities that the Wigmore offers. She also, perhaps deliberately, chose repertoire which steered well clear of the customary Wagner and Strauss warhorses that one might have expected. Maybe this (and the fact that it was a cold, wet Monday evening close to Christmas) contributed to the somewhat disappointing audience. However those who did attend were treated to an evening of singing by an artist at the height of her powers.
The programme opened with the Sechs Lieder Op48. These were written over four years in the 1880’s set to German texts by poets as varied as Heine, Goethe and Walther von Vogleweide (of Meistersinger mention). With the understated radiance of Gru? Bullock immediately demonstrated spot on judgement of the hall and the easy precision of her relationship with that Prince of accompanists, Malcolm Martineau. Progressing to the much darker themes of Dereinst, Gedanke mein she beautifully pointed the moving acceptance of the loved one’s inevitable passing. Turning to the lighter vein of Lauf der Welt Bullock essayed a pleasing flirtatiousness without ever descending into the cringeworthy roguishness essayed by less subtle artists. In the understated eroticism of Die verschwiegene Nachtigall the breathless mein Mund so rot perhaps inevitably conjured memories of Bullock’s Salome. She also found congenial match with the perfumed tragedy of Zur Rosenzeit particularly in the regret of Ihr verblühet, sü?e Rosen. The final song Ein Traum requires an almost Straussian bloom, especially at the climax, and found Bullock completely at home.
Moving from Norway to Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov was next on the menu. Three songs set to texts by Aleksei Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin removed us to an entirely different soundworld. “The Hills of Georgia” evokes Slavic sadness in the grand manner. On this evidence one would very much like to hear Bullock in some of the more spinto Russian repertoire. The soundscape of “Not the wind” is often similar to Tatiana’s Letter Scene but avoids the obvious climax. The radiant excitement of this song builds still further with “The lark sings louder” which was brought to a thrilling climax by both singer and accompanist.
The final section before the intermission was Sechs Lieder by Brahms all dating from the 1870’s and 80’s. The huge scale of the opening of Mein Liebe ist grün found Martineau in magisterial form and Bullock matched him with an attack which would not have been out of place in Act 1 of Tristan und Isolde. The profound grief of Immer leise wird mein Schlummer was evoked by a deliberately parched thread of sound and bleached tone. O wü?t doch den Weg zurück portrays the longing of the poet for the simple certainties of childhood and the hymn-like repeated refrains hark back to this happier time. Significantly there is no easy repeat on the last verse and Bullock skilfully pointed up the uncertainty of the close. It was a relief to turn to the comparatively unambiguous atmosphere of Ständchen and Wir Wandelten with their light-hearted evocation of first love and the group ended with the joyous Das Mädchen spricht.
After the interval we moved into very different territory with a performance of Alison Bauld’s “Banquo’s Buried”. I had not encountered this work before – Bauld uses the complete text of Lady Macbeth’s Sleepwalking Scene without the interjections of the Doctor and the Gentlewoman. The music is highly dramatic and often lapses into sprechstimme. In the wrong hands I imagine the work, especially when performed in the neutral surroundings of a concert hall, could be horribly awkward and even inappropriate. However in Bullock and Martineau’s hands it was a riveting ten minutes of scarifying drama. In an already excellent recital this performance was the highlight by a significant margin. I would love to hear Bullock have a go at Verdi’s Lady.
After a brief pause to bring us back to the safe surroundings of the Wigmore we moved onto four songs by Henri Duparc. Following the angular dissonances of Bauld the warm, perfumed bath of Duparc’s tonal palette might have seemed indigestible. However both singer and accompanist were fully equal to the leap and Bullock brought shimmering, silver tone to all the songs with ravishing outpourings of Phidylé and the unexpected emotional blow to the solar plexus at the climax of Chanson triste being the highlights for me.
Bullock closed her programme with English songs by Warlock, Quilter and Bridge. The simple sadness of Quilter’s “Autumn evening” contrasted well with the lush melody of Bridge’s “Come to me in my dreams” which boasts a tune which would not sound out of place in a Noel Coward or Ivor Novello show. Then, just as one writes the song off as a lush tune Bridge pulls the rug from under one with a sharp chill on the words “My love, why suff’rest thou”.
Three seasonally adjusted encores followed - First the sad simplicity of Strauss’ Weinacht gefühl which was followed by the hilarious “The Twelve days after Christmas” by Fred Silver and finally sending us off satisfied into the night with “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”.