2010 sees Andrs Schiff continuing his ‘Songs With and Without Words’ series at the Wigmore Hall, in which he juxtaposes songs by the main Lieder composers with their piano music.This concert, with its focus on Felix Mendelssohn, had originally been planned as part of the composer’s bicentennial celebrations last year, but was cancelled because of illness.Instead, it now looked both backwards to Mendelssohn and forward to this year’s celebrations of Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler.
The opening set of songs showed Mendelssohn in both magic-inspired and intimate mood; Banse and Schiff rode through the dark woods and witches of ‘Reiselied’ and ‘Neue Liebe’, but it was a shame that this activity seeped into the quieter songs, including ‘Schilflied’, one of Mendelssohn’s most beautiful: one felt just a little too hurried in such an exquisite representation of losing oneself in nature.
No such problem with the six Songs Without Words that Schiff performed: he led through all the moods of these wonderful pieces, mixing wistful nostalgia with merry dancing and loving exchanges. It can be easy to over-sentimentalize these pieces, but Schiff judged them perfectly.
One presumes Mahler was included because of the myriad links between his Lieder and his orchestral works indeed, the Scherzo from his second symphony appeared here in its vocal version, ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’, along with four songs from the composer’s early years. Unfortunately, the set seemed out of place, not quite in sympathy with the rest of the programme; however, Banse and Schiff certainly caught the youthful exuberance of the songs, and their performance was faultless.
Schumann is perhaps the prime composer for whom piano music and song were truly equal first loves, and this was well-demonstrated by Schiff’s programming, his brilliant rendition of Papillons, in which each miniature was deftly characterized, contrasting with the emotional core of the programme, Banse singing Schumann’s two cycles for the female voice, the Gedichte der Knigin Maria Stuart and Frauenliebe und leben.
The latter, which ended the concert, charts what is supposedly the entirety of a woman’s existence, from love at first sight to widowhood, and Banse’s sublime smoothness of tone led us through the joyful growing of the woman’s love before plunging into the despair of the final song. Banse’s motionless posture, held through the heart-breaking final piano postlude, so held the hall in thrall that even Schiff could not hold his final pose long enough.
But as good as Banse was in Frauenliebe und leben, the Mary Stuart songs were in an altogether higher class. Again, they chart the path of Mary’s tragic life, condemned to exile from an early age, trapped and subject to the whim of her cousin Elizabeth I, and finally sentenced to death.
Schiff’s playing of the bleak, unpianistic accompaniment perfectly underscored Banse’s noble, yet impassioned delivery of texts which take in bidding farewell to the queen’s beloved France, a prayer over her son, a plea for clemency, and a final farewell and prayer before her execution. It was as if, in setting to music the account of Mary heading towards and facing her own death, Schumann was preparing for his own, and Banse and Schiff created so exactly the state of nothingness, of resigned acceptance, contained in the final words of the cycle: ‘In my harsh prison, in dire affliction, I long for Thee hearken, I implore Thee, and rescue me!’