Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Damrau / Pikulski @ Wigmore Hall, London

12 October 2021

An enjoyable demonstration of Damrau’s consummate skill and discipline at the Wigmore Hall.

Maciej Pikulski & Diana Damrau (Photo: Guangzhou Opera House)

At Tuesday’s Wigmore Hall recital Diana Damrau’s short throat clearing interlude prior to singing Richard Strauss’s Freundliche Vision put her off her stride, and, as she explained afterwards, she thought she was about to sing Wiegenlied (the following piece), and so she returned to sing Freundliche Vision how she would have wanted it. Normally, this would be an incident for a reviewer to skip over, but, actually, rather than a small misfortune, it became an unlooked-for and enjoyable demonstration of Damrau’s consummate skill and discipline, and what made this recital special. For, while the first rendering was full of gentle sweetness, and almost whispered long lines (as was the subsequent performance of the cradle-song, Wiegenlied), the second was given a much more expansive tone, emphasising the slightly steelier timbres of her middle range. This was the sort of exemplar material one might find in a masterclass, and highlighted perfectly how Damrau brings her operatic character-portrayal experience to the party in chamber recitals.

Indeed, the whole recital was crammed with such opportunities, all of which Damrau took advantage of. At a broad level, the composers and works were contrasted – Robert Schumann’s cycle Frauen-Liebe und Leben; five mélodies by Henri Duparc; a small collection of Spanish canciones by Enrique Granados, Joaquín Turina and Fernando Obradors; seven Lieder by Richard Strauss – but even within these broad stylistic differences, there was plenty of variation, and Damrau, with physical gesture, facial expression, and perfectly controlled vocal texture, delivered each one as an intelligently considered, exquisitely presented gift.

We were given dimpled winsomeness in different shades – a kind of dirndl clad innocent joy in motherhood in Schumann’s An meinem Herzen…, a more adolescently teasing version in Obradors’ Al amor, and the mature, sexually aware iterations in Strauss’ Einerlei, and (as more playful moments) Das Rosenband.

There was plenty of sighing too: Duparc’s Soupir opened on one, to be followed by a moving procession of short, unutterably sad statements; not dissimilar to the fleeting moodiness of Schumann’s Ich kann’s nicht fassen… Contrasting with these were the slow, contented sighs throughout Schumann’s Süsser Freund.

“This was the sort of exemplar material one might find in a masterclass…”

It’s as a coloratura soprano that Damrau is best known onstage, and one might have expected some big notes. True to her intelligent approach, though, she opted to respect the more intimate material, and let these out only rarely – even then with appropriate restraint. She produced some glorious examples of tightly controlled high notes (“I could… but I won’t”) in Duparc’s L’invitation and Le manoir… , and in Strauss’ Allerseelen; the just tapped top note in Süsser Freund was magnificent. There was no shortage of power through intensity, though, as was demonstrated in the sulky, declamatory approach to Schumann’s Nun hast du… or the quietly expansive delivery of the bittersweet emotion in Duparc’s Chanson triste.

The five Spanish songs opening the second half were new discoveries. Cleverly chosen to provide more earthy contrast, these were witty and quirky and full of Spanish tropes: pasodoble and tango rhythms, and Andalusian decorative turns. Obradors’ Chiquitita, particularly (with Damrau’s jokey mosquito buzz at the close) was delightful.

Mention must also be made of Maciej Pikulski’s playing, which was first class. He and Damrau clearly have a synergy, as the mood of every piece was summoned by their partnership. Not a few of the works were ‘voice over piano ripples’, and these were balanced perfectly. Schumann’s elegant Nachspielen were delivered such that one almost didn’t notice that the vocal line had finished.

Strauss’ Morgen as an encore placed the cherry on top of the most delicious evening dessert.

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