Christopher Raeburn, who died in 2009, was one of the most prominent record producers in the business. While he was responsible for countless fine Decca recordings, it was for his discovery of Cecilia Bartoli that he became especially well known, not least because he features on several of her DVDs. This recital was originally meant to include Bartoli, accompanied by András Schiff, with whom the mezzo has recorded Italian songs by Beethoven, Schubert and Haydn, and who also had a close relationship to Raeburn. Unfortunately, Bartoli pulled out – no reason given. The reason for this may indeed be very good, and one rather hopes it is, for without Raeburn, there is no guarantee that even as rare a talent as Bartoli would necessarily have had the extraordinary success she has enjoyed these past two decades - she is greatly indebted to him.
Stepping in to replace Bartoli for this memorial concert at Wigmore Hall was Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager, who I saw (and reviewed for Opera Britannia) last September in Leeds. The Leeds recital was slightly disappointing, not because of the quality of her voice or technical issues, but because it was all rather under-prepared; singing with music, stumbling over words, etc. She even apologised for this during the first half. Last night’s recital showed none of these flaws, with all the Lieder well rehearsed and sung entirely from memory – I noticed just textual inaccuracy: “Du” instead of “Wie” for the second line of Schumann’s ‘Der Einsiedler’.
However, before any of the Lieder were sung (comprising ten by Brahms in the first half and five by Schumann in the second), Schiff performed some solo piano works. The format of the concert was very much half-piano recital, half-Lieder recital, for both halves began in the same way with solo piano works. Schiff opened with four Mozart miniatures, all of which were quite eccentric, beginning with the Adagio in C, K356 (originally written for glass harmonica), followed by the haunting Rondo in A minor, K511, a tragic Siciliano which includes such extraordinarily chromatic and florid ornamentation in the right hand that it could almost pass for one of the more sombre waltzes of Chopin. This was succeeded by a piece unknown to me and a Mozart rarity, Minuet in D, K355, and finally a fun and lively Gigue, K574. Schiff’s pianism was exceptional throughout, and his lightness of touch allowed many melodic lines to be graced with a delicacy so rarely achieved (Uchida, of course, being another pianist who consistently produces this effect in her Mozart).
This perfectly understated pianism continued in the opening of the second half, which consisted of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B flat, BWV825. It was a particular delight for me to witness Schiff playing this work. When I was preparing for my grade 8 piano all those years ago (for which I played the first and final movements of this partita), Schiff’s first 1984 Decca recording was a tremendous source of inspiration. (He re-recorded all six partitas for ECM New Series in 2009). Schiff is, of course, one of the great Bach interpreters of his generation, but it is reassuring that he by no means rests on his laurels, constantly challenging and developing his approach to the music. It was a joy, for example, to hear so many added ornaments in this Wigmore Hall recital, missing from the Decca recording. In particular, the cheeky left hand ornamentation in the ‘Sarabande’ worked very well, as did the many imaginative yet subtle added touches to the transitions that led into the repeat of sections. None of these was indulgent or distracting, and they came across completely naturally. This was Schiff on top form, and I feel fortunate to have witnessed this veteran pianist proving that he is still very much at the top of his game.
If only I could say the same about Kirchschlager’s contributions to the concert. I very much admire Kirchschlager as a recording artist, but in the concert hall I have yet to been convinced of her status as one of the most acclaimed mezzos around today. As mentioned above, last night the problems were not caused by a lack of preparation. Indeed, although I say ‘problems’, it would be fairer use the singular, for there was really only one issue that detracted from her performance, but unfortunately it’s a rather fundamental point: intonation. She began with Brahms’ Deutsche Volkslieder (1894). The first song, ‘Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund’, was a little over-mannered in expressions (almost as if she were trying to imitate Bartoli in fact, but I’m probably just imagining this). However, the real problem occurred in the second song, ‘Die Sonne scheint nicht mehr’ and the third, ‘Schwesterlein’, which both included some very flat tuning. The worst thing about intonation problems is that as soon as your attention is drawn to them, you become ultra-sensitive for the remainder of the performance, so that although the next several songs did not suffer so badly, I was nevertheless distracted. The penultimate two songs of the first half actually came off well, with Kirchschlager superbly engaging with the dual-character mother-daughter song ‘Och Muder’ to great comedic effect, and contrasting this with a deeply sensitive yet impassioned account of ‘Es steht ein’ Lind’. But alas, just when I thought things were back on track, the final song - ‘In stiller Nacht’ - let her down once again, and the final lines were particularly painful (in “Die wilden Tier traurn auch mit mir”, “Tier” was as flat as a pancake).
In the Schumann Lieder in the second half, Kirchschlager was brilliantly characterful once again for ‘Die Soldatenbraut’, drawing out the military theme, ably supported by Schiff at the piano. Next came ‘Erstes Grün’ and then one of the most famous and loveliest of all Schumann’s Lieder, ‘Der Nußbaum’. Once again, it was the conclusion of this otherwise well-sung song that let the mezzo down: “in Schlaf und Traum” was woefully below pitch. It may seem as if I’m concentrating too much on this one issue of intonation, but the problem is that with these Lieder – both the Schumann and the Brahms – the vocal line is so frequently doubled by the right hand of the piano, brutally exposing any shortcomings in pitch, even to the smallest degree.
Projection and diction were excellent throughout, aided by the Wigmore Hall’s exemplary acoustic, and of course, singing in her native German, there were no problems with pronunciation. The vibrato was perfectly under control, without any threat of a wobble, and both lower and upper ranges suffered little sense of strain. She really is a very fine singer, as her many recordings testify. It’s just a shame that her tuning affected this recital to the extent that it did.
I was surprised by the generosity of the audience, who went wild with applause and were rewarded with two encores: Schubert’s ‘An Silvia’ and Schumann’s ‘Widmung’. Both were delivered with finesse, though articulation in the little descending scalic runs in the former lacked definition (e.g. “un-ter-er-er-er-tan”). I’m not quite sure why the audience responded so enthusiastically. Certainly Schiff’s playing was superb, and Kirchschlager by no means gave a bad performance. But let’s not pretend everything was A-OK, when it clearly wasn’t. Given the reaction of this crowd, if Bartoli had sung at this recital, I should think John Gilhooly would have had a riot on his hands by the end.