Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Elsa Dreisig / Jonathan Ware review – songs from the Gilded Age

19 April 2023

The French-Danish soprano and American pianist deliver a characterful collection of songs of the early 20th century in a clever programme exploring music from the fall of empires to the arrival of the modern age.

Elsa Dreisig Simon Fowler

Elsa Dreisig (Photo: Simon Fowler)

There is much satisfaction to be gained from a well-planned concert programme, and Wednesday evening’s bill of fare at Wigmore Hall was a masterpiece of intelligent design. Deftly avoiding reference to the horrors of the Great War, Elsa Dreisig and Jonathan Ware’s collection of songs dwelt on the hedonistic musical culture of the first couple of decades of the 20th century, taking in European ‘rotten Romanticism’, the last heady attar fumes of 19th century Orientalism, and the growth of jazz and cabaret in the USA and Germany. The composer guests were a collection that one would not normally imagine at the same party –Berg, Ravel, Koechlin, Korngold, Beach, Weill, Gershwin and Swift – but the combination worked well in summoning the ritzy atmosphere of the beau monde, and illustrating the concert’s subtitle “car le songe est plus beau que la réalité” (because the dream is more beautiful than reality).

The performers were admirably matched to their material. Dreisig’s upper register is silky soft on the floated notes, but becomes more opulent when some power is applied; her middle register, though, carries enough hints of shiny steel and chrome to turn every line into a precision exercise. Ware’s playing is, by turns, virtuosic and empathetic, and his connection to the soul of the songs and the intention of the composers was palpable in the brilliant abandon with which he approached the handfuls of syncopated notes in the encore piece, Gershwin’s I got rhythm, and in the exact placing of the underlay in the lusher works.

Four songs from Alban Berg’s 7 früher Lieder opened the evening, and their performances were exemplary – from the complex, shifting harmonies of ‘Nacht’ and ‘Traumgekrönt’ to the more lyrical ‘Die Nachtigall’ and ‘Liebesode’ – demonstrating, through perfectly controlled vocal dynamics and expression, and analytical pianistic interpretation, Berg’s arrival at the endpoint of chromaticism, from which his launch into the purist serialism of the Second Viennese School seemed inevitable.

“…Wednesday evening’s bill of fare at Wigmore Hall was a masterpiece of intelligent design”

Jonathan Ware

Jonathan Ware (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

The Ravel/Koechlin songs were all taken from the composers’ respective flirtations with the tale of Scheherazade as recounted in the poems of Tristan Klingsor. One noticed instantly the similarity in style of the pieces – the sumptuousness of the narrative is depicted largely in the text and the intelligently interpreted piano harmonies, while the voice is given almost directionless, angular, recitative-like lines occasionally leavened by soft exclamations. Dreisig’s range of timbres was perfect for this, and she recounted the great lists of Asiatic tropes (in ‘Asie’) with a slightly detached ‘it’s all too much’ wonder, but softened her voice to describe the ‘invisible instruments’ in ‘Le voyage’, the ‘sadness and joy in turn’ in ‘La flûte enchantée’, and deployed a wry edge to ‘the treasure of your rosy, wide behind’ in ‘L’oiseau en cage’ or a resigned sighing quality to ‘L’indefférent’, an incident of brief lust for a pretty but uninterested boy (we know the type).

Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Amy Beach both wrote in the Romantic tradition, and both performers gave full rein to the extravagant melodies and harmonies that Korngold’s three songs from 1928/29 embrace – the same technique as would later make him famous as a film composer after his flight to the USA to escape Nazi Germany. The choice of Beach songs was interesting though; there are about them touches of angstiness (‘In the Twilight’), a brisk rustling (‘Springtime’) and mobility (‘The Singer’; ‘Mine be the lips’), which run contrary to the blowsiness in some of her writing that one can imagine found favour with recitals for the Vanderbilts. Again, Dreisig’s dryer tones brought much to these less full-on works, and Ware’s accompaniment – be it the uneasy arpeggios of ‘In the Twilight’, or the light staccato acompaniment to ‘The Singer’ – imbued them with sense of time and place. 

Kurt Weill was represented by ‘Alabama Song’ (from Mahagonny) and ‘Surabaya Johnny’, and it was in the first of these that one felt Dreisig’s interpretation maybe wasn’t quite on point. The ‘moon of Alabama’ sections were delivered with a good nod to ironic romance, and a delicacy of tone, but the ‘whisky bar’ segments needed less politesse and a bit more rasp.

The last songs of the evening were from Tin Pan Alley – George Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise’ and Kay Swift’s ‘Can we be friends?’. Dreisig brought every bit of nuance to these, from innocent expectation through witty, half-spoken delivery, to an almost Ethel Merman bravura. Ware, here, showed pride in his roots, and tackled the ragtime idiom and quirky rhythmic demands with a prodigious yet insouciantly intuitive technique.

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Elsa Dreisig / Jonathan Ware review – songs from the Gilded Age