This recital, the second in the Wagner 200 series and the first in the 2013 London Song Festival, was unique in representing the only occasion in Britain in the composer’s bicentenary year when all of his completed songs could be heard in one evening.
The most famous of these are the Wesendonck Lieder, written following the completion of Act II of Siegfried and while Wagner was contemplating Tristan und Isolde. Perhaps inevitably, the songs bridge the gap between the early Ring and Tristan, with at least the second of the five songs, ‘Stehe still!’, moving from one camp to the other. Soprano Elisabeth Meister executed them to perfection with a resonant voice that was also blessed with sensitivity, and a rich vibrato that was never overused. Here, and over the evening, she also proved how she could assert whole-heartedly in the upper register, or conversely lighten the sound at the top of her range if this was necessary. Meister has already played several Wagnerian roles, but she left me asking when is her first Brünnhilde? Pianist Nigel Foster also excelled, especially in his execution of the rising line of the introduction to the third song, ‘Im Treibhaus’.
If those songs represented a shift from the predominantly diatonic world of the earlier Ring operas to the chromaticism that lies at the heart of Tristan, the majority of the evening represented another sound world again. If most of the Wagner performed today post-dates Der fliegende Holländer, first staged in 1843, then the majority of the evening’s output, having been composed prior to 1840, came from an era that many of us know little about. In this world Wagner, though certainly doing many ‘Wagnerian’ things, was still discovering his own voice, and the influence of others such as Carl Maria von Weber is far more explicitly stamped on his work. Indeed, Wagner was later to pay his own tribute to that composer with the song ‘An Webers Grabe’ of 1844.
The evening also revealed sides to Wagner that are not so readily apparent in his more famous works. Humour is not entirely lacking in his mature operas (certainly not in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), but it still felt refreshing to witness a large dose in ‘Les Deux Grenadiers’ (Wagner wrote some songs in French and even one in Italian), based on Heinrich Heine’s poem. Stylistically, the song reveals traces of Die Feen (his first completed opera of 1833), but the final triumphant introduction of La Marseillaise, as two soldiers returning home defeated contemplate rising from their graves to defend France, is both ironic and comical in its demonstration of a somewhat bulldog spirit.
Wagner’s arrangements of seven poems from Goethe’s Faust when he was eighteen were also very revealing. ‘Branders Lied’ and ‘Es war einmal ein Konig’ (there once was a king) possessed exactly the same sense of mischief as Berlioz’s own arrangements in his slightly later légende dramatique, La damnation de Faust, but they perhaps had just a little more heft. Here, as across the evening, bass-baritone Matthew Hargreaves delivered handsomely with a strong and engaging voice whose expansive tone went hand in hand with a rich and frequently dark sound.
The ‘Lied der Soldaten’, although undoubtedly a skilful composition, had all the boisterous exuberance of a piece to be sung gathered around the piano in your local, with members of London Voices being on hand to perform the evening’s three ensemble songs. Perhaps most intriguing of all, however, was ‘Melodram Gretchens’. This represented the only occasion when Wagner composed words to be spoken over music, and here Meister perfectly captured Gretchen’s sorrowful state of mind. If the opportunity to hear Wagner’s complete songs felt special in its own right, the evening fulfilled all expectations thanks to the talents of Meister, Hargreaves and Foster.
For details of all events in the eight month long Wagner 200 festival click here.
For details of all events in the 2013 London Song Festival click here.