Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Thomas Quasthoff @ Wigmore Hall, London

21 November 2008

Thomas Quasthoff has always said he likes jazz and crossover. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this evening felt very different to most Lieder recitals.

If he had kept the talking to a minimum as well, then this would have been a truly memorable evening.

Quasthoff began with Schubert. The quiet, contemplative Wanderer’s Nachtlied II was less carefully shaded than usual. An Schwager Kronos, followed, a wild, turbulent song so vivid that it never fails to shake up an audience.

Mussorgsky’s dramatic Songs and Dances of Death also guarantee audience impact. The German version is less pungent than Russian, but Quasthoff delivers the high points. He had announced that he was going to perform them in German as he doesn’t believe that Russian songs should be sung in the original language by anyone who doesn’t speak the language, which seems a bit odd seeing that Dutch baritone Robert Holl had sang them in the original the week before. Serenade, starts like a love song, but at the end the lover turns out to be Death himself. “Be silent!” shouts Quasthoff, “Du bist mein!” Then there’s Der Feldherr, where the Field Marshal of Death tramples on the bones on the battlefield, so the dead shall never rise again. Gruesome stuff, but great listening. It’s good material for baritones whose lower registers are more dominant and who use volume for effect.

Schumann’s Liederkreis Op 39 showed Quasthoff in more familiar form. He was more at ease here with the quieter passages, more subtle than he’d been with Schubert. This cycle is, after all one of the key pieces in his repertoire, so his experience meant it flowed naturally. In the lovely Mondnacht, he was excellent, carrying the long legato smoothly, like the moonlight spreading over the landscape. Many of these songs move at a crisp pace which belies hidden sorrow. Im Wald, for example, follows a merry wedding procession through the mountains, but at the end darkness falls and the song ends in fear. Quasthoff managed a magisterial growl on the final word “Herzensgrunde” , truly heartfelt. Postludes and preludes are as important in Schumann as the vocal part. Justus Zeyen, Quasthoff’s alert accompanist, helped shape the cycle.

Then Quasthoff continued talking, referring to his London debut in January 1997, and thanked William Lyne for having faith in him although Lyne wasn’t in the audience this time round. But having been at that first performance, I remember how raw and powerful it was. Quasthoff is an excellent singer, capable of real greatness, so his decision to talk so much seemed unnecessary. He can communicate through his singing, speaking through his songs. As he said himself, the audiences already know them. But even those who are new to the genre should primarily be listening to the music. The real depths of Lieder reveal themselves through deep commitment, both from artists and from listener. In these days of sound-bite superficiality, we need the ‘inner space’ values of Lieder more than ever before.

Quasthoff really doesn’t need to worry as he is such a well-loved artist and decent audiences (even for jazz) don’t need to be eased in, especially not at the sophisticated Wigmore Hall. For one of his encores, Quasthoff sang Schubert’s Der Musensohn. The son of the muses rushes impatiently through the countryside, piping a tune that heralds Spring. But it isn’t really a happy song. “When” he asks the muses “will I find rest?” Quasthoff used to sing this with manic fervour which really brought out the irony. He’s no longer driven by the same intensity, which is good for him, and still good for us. He’s a performer who doesn’t need extra sweeteners because he is fine without them.

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