Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Brahms & Schumann @ Wigmore Hall, London

26 May 2011

Thomas Quasthoff, whose visits to London are rare enough, had had to withdraw from tonight’s concert, as well as his solo recital on Sunday, with a severe case of laryngitis. He was replaced by the equally distinguished Robert Holl, but it seemed that Quasthoff’s ailment had also affected the Wigmore audience, with every pause between songs being marked with hacking and clearing of throats more usually heard in deepest December than in mild May.

The rest of the starry line-up for this recital of vocal ensemble songs by Schumann and Brahms the formers Spanische Liebeslieder, and four quartets and the two sets of Liebesliederwlzer by the latter was completed by soprano Sylvia Schwartz, mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, tenor Michael Schade, and pianists Malcolm Martineau and Justus Zeyen. Such an array of talent promised, and delivered a sparkling performance, with all the humour and despair, with everything in between, sung and acted out gleefully for a rapt, appreciative audience.

However I don’t think I was alone in finding it all a bit too much in your face four large, opulent voices giving their all to music which they very obviously love meant that I spent most of the evening longing for softer tones and more subtlety of timbre, for a touch of Zürtlichkeit to offset the searing passions more obviously on display.

What sprung to mind most readily was the latest disc from the Prince Consort a group of five singers and artistic director Alisdair Hogarth at the piano, all in their 30s which includes the two sets of Liebesliederwlzer by Brahms as well as a specially-commissioned cycle by Stephen Hough. Here, the blend of young voices, singing with passion and agility and volume, but also with less driven and insistent tone, taking more time to savour the softness and gentleness in the music, is as close to an ideal performance of the two Brahms sets as I can imagine.

Which is not to say that there wasn’t any beautiful singing taking place at the Wigmore tonight, but merely that it tended to be heard when one or two voices were singing, rather than the full complement. Bernarda Finks singing grows more graceful and richly hued as time goes by, and Michael Schade, if perhaps a little too present when singing as part of the ensemble, was an ideal interpreter and story-teller he reminded me of Peter Schreier, with the glint he brought to his eye and voice.

Sylvia Schwartz was rather too reticent throughout the evening, her quick, bright vibrato not helping the projection in the lower and middle parts of her register. This may have been due to her position right in front of the keyboard end of the piano, where Martineau and Zeyen were having a whale of a time, judging by the grins they continually exchanged: perhaps their fulsome involvement, added to the full force of the accompaniment, meant that Schwartz refrained from singing out more, lest her ears were deceiving her and she upset the balance of the ensemble.

It would be churlish to talk down Robert Holl’s contribution to the performance, drafted in, as he was, at very short notice apart from a tendency to keep his nose in the score, and the odd look ahead to his next number while the others were singing, one would scarcely have realised that he wasn’t originally intended to be part of the ensemble. However, his is a lower, larger voice than that of Quasthoff, and he never quite blended with his colleagues in the way that I imagined Quasthoff, with that slightly headier, less covered sound, would have done.

I felt that my thoughts about the make-up and balance of the ensemble were at least slightly corroborated by the choice of the two encores. First, Da unten im Tale, that old Elisabeth Schwarzkopf favourite, the lighter nature of which immediately lightened the tone of the voices; then, in what was probably the most pleasing singing of the evening, the unaccompanied In einem khlen Grunde at last, it seemed that the four singers could hear and respond to each other completely, and so gave the audience the perfect send-off.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org

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Brahms & Schumann @ Wigmore Hall, London