Anne Schwanewilms replaced an indisposed Alice Coote for this, the fifth Proms Chamber Music Concert in the 2014 season, and pianist Malcolm Martineau accompanied. The programme contrasted the delicate lyricism of Debussy’s Proses Lyriques with a selection of Richard Strauss’ lieder, which were for the most part no less demanding in their refinement from both artists. It was, however, when all is said and done an hour of song-making that was infuriating and brilliant if not quite in equal measure.
Debussy’s own particular sound world and aesthetic is one that thrives on attention to detail and the realisation of it in performance. All this Malcolm Martineau provided with his dextrous touch and feeling for the subtleties of line and timbre throughout the accompaniments. Indeed, his contribution was engaging because of its restrained and effortless style, all the more impressively realised considering the restrictions of timbre possible from a piano with its lid fully closed. That French is not Anne Schwanewilms’ native tounge was, alas, immediately apparent since her singing of Debussy’s own words had a somewhat approximate relationship with the actual text. She appeared throughout somewhat on edge; in the first song, De rêve, there were finely floated pianissimo vowels and other nuances that sometimes hit their mark, but at other times did not. The feeling of the individual songs moving in and out of focus according to Schwanewilms’ textual enunciation continued in De grève, where occasional over-emphases of vowels was caused due to her wanting to attack a note with a particular inference.
It would be a mistake however to remember Schwanewilms’ Debussy for purely negative reasons, since there were positive aspects. It is just that these were so few and far between as to prove infuriating. Why, for example, couldn’t the instinctive feeling for Gallic tone and inference that she brought to lines in the third song, De fleurs, be replicated elsewhere? One would be hard pressed even with a French singer to match the depth of inner desolation she found there, or in some lines from De soir, the set’s final song. Schwanewilms’ mastery of breath control was continually in evidence and it aided her in producing restrained singing. De soir was imbued with moments of infectious joy from the start – picking up on the impulsively impish tempo adopted by Martineau – but at its conclusion the song dissolved once again into a haze of tone and hushed timbre, albeit with some textual clarity.
The lieder by Richard Strauss were given with no less lightness of touch than the Debussy, but with infinitely greater confidence by Schwanewilms. She effortlessly brought out the depth of pain of a lover’s departure within Ach Lieb, ich muss nun scheiden and contrasted it with the lingering thoughts of love within Traum durch die Dämmerung. Here, both her ability to convey the warm glow of waking from a dream of one’s love combined with the lingering subtleties of text echoed in the tempo of Martineau’s discretely ebbing accompaniment were contributing factors. Radiance of tone albeit within a restrained dynamic range met with a savouring of the emotion behind Klopstock’s text in Das Rosenband. With the difficulties of tempo proving no impediment for her Geduld fully demonstrated Schwanewilms’ abilities a protagonist within a private melodrama, drawing the audience into a world of a woman that shifts from hope via reluctant acceptance to utter desolation at the wish of her lover. Waldseligkeit was fully ecstatic, its most private emotional canvas laid before the audience with beauteous tone held under careful check. An wholly appropriate note of sternness entered proceedings with Wer lieben will, muss leiden. Another Alsatian folk song, Ach was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen, brought the recital to a close. The text, of a woman who dare not reveal what she feels for and about her lover, led to discreetly timed comic interplay and furtive glances between Schwanewilms and Martineau. Given the generous thanks they offered each other throughout the ensuing applause, there could be little doubt of the artistic esteem in which this regular partnership hold each other.
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