Strauss and Schoenberg lieder last year, Mahler and Liszt this: in the ongoing and unforgiveable absence of Anne Schwanewilms at the Royal Opera House, we have every reason to be grateful to the Wigmore Hall for such limited exposure to her remarkable artistry as London manages to enjoy. The bulk of this programme was devoted to the early songs written by Mahler based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the spurious collection of supposed ancient German folk tales actually largely written by their “collators” Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in the first decade of the C19th. The group of four in the first half date from the composer’s twenties, the four in the second from his later thirties. As such, this recital could easily have been entitled “The Nightingale and the Cuckoo” – or, I suppose more accurately, Die Nachtigall und Der Kuckuck – given that five of the eight songs selected make extensive mention of either one or indeed both birds. The five Liszt items which rounded out the first half were all written in the 1840s and 50s, and comprised Oh! Quand je dors, the three-song group written to texts from Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, and Heinrich Heine’s large-scale narrative drama Die Loreley. The second half then opened with the later Wunderhorn settings, and concluded with Mahler’s five Rückertlieder.
Describing anyone’s voice in terms of how it actually sounds is – as anybody knows who has ever tried – exceptionally tricky: rendering the impressions of one sense – especially hearing and tasting - into the narrower logic of language is difficult, not least because the bare facts get you so far and no further, yet to go beyond, into the realm of the simile and fanciful analogy, gets you perilously close to the sort of territory in which wine writers invariably seem to stray, waxing lyrical over smells of old saddles and cigar boxes, leaving the innocent reader wondering just what they might have been imbibing and in what quantity. Since (in thinking of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs) both cats’ piss and new-mown hay always come to my mind, I suppose I’d better tread carefully here, and try to stay within the sphere of the reasonably comprehensible.
So: Schwanewilms’s voice is in most respects the living archetype of what is meant as a German soprano (at its best). The tone is of almost instrumental clarity and purity of timbre, not exactly cool, but not noticeably warm either, with immaculately even, very narrow-bore vibrato that can, at times, straighten out into what is effectively voce bianca, and with a strange sense of the sound being squeezed - usually effortlessly – up a long, glass tube through which you can sort of see its progress before it emerges at the top, more rounded than you would have thought likely, and expanding seamlessly into surprisingly full-bodied and powerfully precise tone. Increasingly, the only comparison that comes to mind is with Gundula Janowitz, whose voice I adored beyond any critical caveat. In fact, Schwanewilms has the more secure technique: but like her predecessor’s, it is not infallible, and has a slightly disconcerting tendency to trouble her fleetingly at points of maximum musical exposure, such as an unaccompanied high note at the end of a phrase; or in the matter of pitch-accuracy – always a tougher proposition with voices of such control and absence of vibrato “bluster” that would otherwise, and with everybody else indeed does, stop you from noticing - when it comes to turning tight corners in the faster songs, or in having no melodic prompting from the accompaniment.
Well, that’s quite enough nit-picking: there were a bare handful of such smudges, but I’ve already made too much of them as it is. Better to acclaim the, to me, oddly sensuous majesty of her voice, the sheerly gorgeous caress of her utterly lovely mid-range, which manages to be the most perfect amalgamation of the girlish and the womanly imaginable, and the absolutely heart-stoppingly beautiful legato line she can draw through, say, Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (the second of the Rückertlieder) or throughout the whole of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (the fifth). In fact, the Rückertlieder and the Liszt pieces – far, far finer than his appalling orchestral music, the desperate piano concertos included - were the highlights of this performance, mainly because the Wunderhorn songs elicited from the soprano a slightly over-emphatic form of theatricalised delivery, each line punctuated by rolling eyes, waving arms, extensive bodily movement, hand gestures, everything, in fact, bar traffic signals, though I’m not so sure we didn’t even get them during the piano postlude of Ich ging mit Lust. Of course, this more than most things is purely a matter of taste: and I’ve certainly seen po-faced old grannies creak through this repertory with barely a suggestion that any of it might actually be either funny, or in some way dramatically alive, and which did far more to falsify the overall effect. I just think that, for a woman who is so very contained and cool a stage presence, it’s odd to see Schwanewilms suddenly so very unbuttoned on the recital platform, as if the exigencies of impersonating some other character in the opera house get in the way of her natural ebullience as a communicator, which is more readily available to her when singing in propria persona (the exact reverse of, say, Keenlyside, an eat-the-scenery stage animal, but a squirming nervous wreck in recital).
Poise, in fact, is as good a word as any to describe what the soprano’s vocalism has in abundance: and perfectly poised legato too (not Italianate in the sense of implying any use of portamento, but immaculately, preternaturally even, with no preparatory placement of notes no matter how high or soft, and a mechanically inaudible progression from one to another across registers as if they didn’t even exist). Even so, she can roughen things up as occasion demands, as in her quite unnervingly accurately onomatopoeic “Hee-haws” at the end of Lob des hohen Verstandes when the X-Factor donkey-judge delivers his verdict in what can only be described as a baritonal bray to the life. “Even in English” she said immediately afterwards, either referring quizzically to the audience’s amused response, or perhaps the fact that German onomatopoeia evidently works even across language barriers (which fact Angela Merkel may yet find useful this weekend).
Charles Spencer, for some reason dressed in a high-collared, white-cravatted shirt minus jacket and looking rather like a refugee from A Christmas Carol, accompanied carefully, though without, to my mind, achieving a comparable “floating” tone to mirror the soprano’s best efforts, or without capturing any of those sudden, catch-at-the-breath moments of musical insight to compare with those which Schwanewilms found with great regularity, especially in the Rückertlieder, where she was sublime and he was for the most part, alas, pretty prosaic (the more barnstorming passages in the Liszt songs seemed to suit him better, especially the last Wilhelm Tell piece, and the watery doom conclusion to Die Loreley). In response to enthusiastic applause, we were given one encore, telling us in no uncertain terms to “Get out!”: Mahler’s Aus!, aus!, from the other great repository of even earlier songs, the Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, and as grandly, sharply characterised as anything heard in what was an altogether delightful evening.