Although the obvious selling points of this concert were the appearance of soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci and the performance of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, the evening was made particularly special by the overall programme. This successfully combined Wagner with Debussy and Respighi, and included intimate pieces from two composers, Wolf and Puccini, who are not exactly renowned for their chamber music.
Antonacci, who sang for three quarters of the programme, is used to playing such monumental roles as Carmen and Cassandra (Les Troyens). She is, however, no stranger to chamber performance. Her voice is as intriguing as it is beautiful, and I was struck by the extent to which she used the mouth as a tool in its own right to focus the sound that is channelled through her throat. This gave her further means with which to shape the precise output that she wanted at every moment, and the most climatic moments were those when the mouth was abandoned as a controlling mechanism to see the sound flood out uninhibited.
Dressed in a chic black top and white skirt, which nonetheless suggested depth of character by not being overtly flashy, she proved a superb actor as her hand rested on the piano and she frequently gazed heavenwards. In this way, the Wesendonck Lieder were sung with great feeling and attention to detail. For example, in the opening Die Engel she rose into her upper register with exquisite timing and discretion as she uttered ‘Ja, es steig auch mir en Engel nieder’, while in Stehe still! she captured the emotional intensity through her phrasing of such lines as ‘Wenn Auge in Auge wonnig trinken’.
Most intriguing, however, were the performances of Im Treibhaus and Träume. In her hands it became easy to recognise them as studies for Tristan und Isolde from a strict musical perspective, but also to appreciate them as songs in their own right with their own unique meanings. Pianist Donald Sulzen also deserves credit for this with playing that throughout the evening combined clarity and precision with sensitivity and restraint.Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis were executed with similar polish, as were several other works from the composer including three songs from his Ariette oubliées.
Just as impressive as Antonacci and Sulzen, however, were the Heath Quartet who began the evening by performing Wolf’s Italian Serenade, an exciting piece that sees the lower strings ‘wooing’ the upper strings with varying degrees of success. They also performed Puccini’s Crisantemi, one of his few chamber works, which was written as a memorial to Prince Amadeo of Savoy in 1890. Like his operas, this beautiful piece (which was to be incorporated into Manon Lescaut) saw the ethereal music rise above the all too mortal context, and with Antonacci and the Heath Quartet in such good form, there could have been no better way to end the evening than to see them combine to perform Respighi’s Il tramonto.
Anna Caterina Antonacci also performs the Wesendonck Lieder at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on 22 August. They can also be heard sung by Elisabeth Meister in a recital to include the complete songs of Wagner at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden on 23 May.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.