Friday, 22 February 2013

Robert Holl and Birgid Steinberger - Temple Song 2013

Profiles of Clara and Robert Schumann
Profiles of Clara and Robert Schumann
The opening concert in this year's Temple Song series, was a recital by the distinguished bass-baritone Robert Holl and soprano Birgid Steinberger. Accompanied by Julius Drake, they performed songs from Robert Schumann's Myrthen and a group of Schubert songs setting words by Friedrich Schlegel. The recital took place on 21 February at Middle Temple Hall, a profoundly historic venue but one with a nice warm acoustic suitable for a recital.


Schumann's song cycle Myrthen was written in 1840 as a wedding present for his beloved Clara. The writing of the cycle took place whilst he and Clara were waiting for her to be 21 so that they could marry without the permission of Clara's father Ferdinand Wieck, who famously placed unreasonable conditions on Schumann if he wanted to marry Clara before she was 21. The cycle consists of 26 songs, with a wide variety of poets as Schumann sought to express his love in a variety of ways; the poems includes ones from the woman's point of view. The cycle is clearly autobiographical and many commentators have seen Schumann's love of cryptography peeping through. So that Der Nussbaum is the 3rd song (3 = C, for Clara). Many others can be surmised, but it is a guessing game; neither Robert nor Clara left any clue to the possible key. Holl and Steinberger sang a selection of songs from the cycle, 19 in total.


Steinberger opened with a performance of Widmung (Dedication) which combined rapture with quiet intensity. Her voice is bright and clear, and she brought a lovely sense of line to all the songs she performed. But this was always combined with a feel for the text, conveying meaning and underlying emotion with intensity.

Holl sand Freisinn (Free spirit) as quite a bluffly dramatic little scene. He is quite a dramatic singer, all his songs were enacted out quite vividly. His rich, dark bass-baritone voice has rather a lived-in quality, how could it not when his career stretches back to his winning the s'Hertogenbosch competition in 1971 and encompasses Hans Sachs, Gurnemanz and King Mark at Bayreuth. But he also brought a wealth of experience in the way he projected text and coloured every single word. With only a couple of exceptions, you never felt he was managing his voice, simply working with it in a way that was natural and profoundly expressive.

Steinberger sang the next two songs. To Der Nussbaum (the walnut tree) she brought great charm, creating a delicate delight out of the piece, with its lovely piano accompaniment. Schumann managing to transform the dross of Julius Mosen's words into spun gold. In the Robert Burns setting Jemand (Somebody), Steinberger was altogether more demonstrative, alternating wistful longing with vivid passion.

In the two songs from Goethe's West-ostlicher Divan Holl was vividly dramatic, his nicely pointed delivery suggesting a singer who had celebrated with wine a little too much.

In Die Lotosblume Steinberger used a beautiful sense of line to give a lovely performance, which was pregnant with all sorts of unspecified longing. By contrast Hall was vividly confident in Talismane, giving a thoughtful, deeply felt performance with no trace of irony.

The next four songs were all sung by Steinberger.  They traced an arc of emotion from the simple, heartfelt directness and beauty of Lied der Suleika, through the two Lied der Braut, both quietly intense Ruckert settings in which the singer allays her mother's fears to the darkly intense, chromatic anxiety of Aus den Hebraischen Gesangen based on a Byron poem. In this latter, the vocal line seemed to drop out of Steinberger's comfort zone, the only moment in the cycle where her delivery was less than poised.

In the two Venetian songs Holl brought out the expressive nature of the texts, creating a dramatic scene in each one. 

Hauptmanns Weib (The captain's lady), another Robert Burns setting, was perhaps the most vividly dramatic of the song which Steinberger sang, showing that the woman in the cycle was not just passive.

Finally, Holl concluded with a group of four songs. He sang Was will die einsame Trane (Why this solitary tear) in a simple and direct manner, but still highly emotive with a masterly use of colour in the words. And in Du bist wie eine Blume (You are like a flower), Holl showed that he could still perform a song with simple, direct beauty.  Aus den Ostlichen Rosen was apparently quite simple, but Holl beautifully conveyed the strong undercurrents of love and experience underneath. Finally Zum Schluss (At the last), an intense, quiet summation of the whole cycle.

Whilst hearing the songs sung by Holl necessitated some transpositions from the original keys it was wonderful to hear such mastery of the lied, combined with the fresh beauty of Steinberger's performances. Both were supported and accompanied by Julius Drake in masterly fashion, bringing out the way Schumann makes the piano a partner rather then simple accompaniment.

For the second half of the concert we heard 11 songs by Schubert setting poems by Friedrich Schlegel, many from the poet's Abendrote (Sunset), with poems full of pantheism. Abendrote is a pantheistic nocturne, and Robert Holl brought quiet intensity to the song. Singing with his eyes almost closed he seemed to bring a total identification with the piece. Die Berge (the mountains) is a highly philosophical song about man's relationship to the natural environment, and Holl sang not only with commitment but with vivid character. 

In Die Vogel (the birds) and Der Knabe (the boy), Steinberger brought out the sheer infectious delight of the songs, with some nicely pointed word painting. 

By contrast  Der Fluss (the river) needed a strong technique to provide a simple expressive line. It was clear that this song stretched Holl's voice, and this was the only time I felt him managing his voice, but the result was still profoundly moving.

In Die Rose, Steinberger's performance was direct and very affecting, but still subtly conveying the profound metaphor underneath the words. There was another metaphor in Der Schmetterling  (the butterfly), where the delight and infectious fun of the performance concealed much. 

Der Wanderer was altogether starker, Schubert's accompaniment shadows the voice in octave, which makes the voice seem lonelier. Holl gave a deeply felt account of the song. Das Madchen is a strangely disturbing account of a woman's feelings about a man, and Steinberger gave a directly intense performance. 

We were back to complex philosophy with De Sterne (the stars) and Holl combined a lovely feel for the melody with a great sense of the complexities being expressed. Finally, in Die Gebusche (the thicket) Steinberger sang of the hidden music in nature, audible to the chosen few. She sang with stunning control, giving an affecting performance and bringing this group of Schlegel settings to a close in masterly fashion.

Finally the two singers joined for a delightful duet, Schubert's Licht und Liebe. They followed this with one encore, a further duet this time by Schumann So wahr die Sonne scheint.

This was lieder singing of a very high order, with masterly partnership from Robert Holl, Birgid Steinberger and Julius Drake. And it was a particular pleasure to hear it in the relatively intimate Middle Temple Hall rather than a bigger recital hall.

Temple Song continues with further recitals during the year all accompanied by the artistic director of the series Julius Drake; the next on 18 March by tenor James Gilchrist in a programme of Britten, followed on 17 April by French soprano Veronique Gens. Further information from the Temple Song website.

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