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Friday, 24 May 2013

Wagner before he became Wagner - London Song Festival

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) is not well-known as a song writer and, in fact, the Wesendonck Lieder apart, most people would be hard pressed to think of any other works by the composer in this genre. In fact the Wesendonck Lieder are Wagner's only songs dating from his operatic maturity and their links to Tristan und Isolde make them rather sui generis. But he did write songs earlier in his career, so Nigel Foster and his London Song Festival at their recital on 23 May 2013 at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, London, enabled us to hear all of Wagner's completed songs, forming a programme which was full, satisfying and rather surprising. Soprano Elisabeth Meister and bass-baritone Matthew Hargreaves were accompanied by Foster, and joined by members of London Voices, giving us a rare chance to hear all of Wagner's songs in one place, giving us an intriguing glance into Wagner before he became Wagner.

Wagner completed the first opera in his mature canon, Der fliegende Holländer, in 1843 and his songs generally date from before this period so that, like his early operas, they show us the composer absorbing influences, trying on styles and even flirting with humour.


The first group of songs were the Sieben Kompositionen zu Goethe's Faust (Seven pieces from Goethe's Faust) which were written in 1831, before the 18 year old composer  had started his composition lessons with Theodor Wenlig. The songs were written for a theatre performance in Leipzig of Goethe's Faust where his sister was playing Gretchen. Wagner set familiar Goethe texts which crop up in a variety of other songs and Faust adaptations: Lied der Soldaten (Song of the Soldiers), Bauern unter der Linde (Yokels under the linden tree),  Brander's Lied (Brander's song), Lied des Mephistopheles: Es war einmal ein Konig (Mephistopheles Song: There was once a King), Lied des Mephistopheles: Was machst du mir (Mephistopheles Song: What are you doing), Gretchen am Spinnrade, Melodram Gretchens.

The opening two movements are choruses, which were sung with lively enthusiasm by members of London Voices; the first a rather four-square march, the second a charming strophic song with solos for tenor and soprano voices. It was immediately apparent that we were in the world of Weber and Marschner. Matthew Hargreaves sang both Brander's Lied and Mephistopheles' two songs, providing some nicely dramatic and vividly involving singing. Both Hargreaves and Elisabeth Meister sang all the programme from memory.  This enormously added to the communicability of the performances but represented a significant amount of work given the rarity of the music. Meister was, of course, Gretchen giving a brilliant account of Gretchen am Spinnrade with Foster providing a very atmospheric piano accompaniment. The final item was even more unusual, Wagner's only example of a melodrama with Meister vividly intense in the spoken passages.

All concerned gave vividly dramatic performances, which were highly involving and helped contribute to the success of the work. Certainly this was Wagner aping Weber and Marschner, but doing so very creditably. We don't normally think of Wagner as a particular prodigy as it took some time before he found his full voice, but it is clear that at 18 he could write very interestingly and creditably. And no, if I'd heard the music blind I would never have guessed it was by Wagner.

In 1837 (at the age of 24) Wagner was appointed music director of Riga opera house, but in 1839 he and his wife Minna had to flee to Paris because of their debts. In Paris, Wagner had a go at writing songs for financial gain; the idea being to write a song which would be taken up by well known singers in recital and hence be popular when published. Though he did get songs published, none were taken up by the well known singers and Wagner failed to make any money. What the songs do show is the composer trying on other styles and influences such as Meyerbeer and Rossini.

Dors mon enfant (Sleep my child) is a slightly odd lullaby; Meister sang it with brilliant charm, bringing out the rather disturbing and desperate undertow to the song. Hargreaves caught exactly the right drawing room ballad style tone of Mignonne (Sweetheart), setting Pierre de Ronsard, whilst in L'Attente (Anticipation), setting Victor Hugo, Meister successfully transcended the words, creating a glorious hymn to liberty

Next came a pair of curiosities, two unaccompanied items. The first Lied fur Louis Kraft written as a tribute to the owner of a hotel where Wagner and Cosima were staying in 1871. The second Canto Antico written in 1861 and Wagner's only setting of Italian. Hargreaves sang both admirably but I felt that they were for completists only.

Part one finished with a final pair of songs from 1839/1840, Les Adieux de Marie Stuart, (The Farewell of Mary Stuart), setting Pierre Jean de Beranger. and Les Deux Grenadiers (The Two Grenadiers), setting Heinrich Heine in a French translation. Meister performed Les Adieux de Marie Stuart with brilliant aplomb. It is an operatic and deliberately showy piece, written to try and tempt the famous soprano Julie Dorus-Gros, though she never included it in a public recital. Meister's performance was fabulous, especially when she brought her lovely gleaming voice to bear on the deliciously twiddly bits. Les Deux Grenadiers was set, in German, with rather more irony by Schumann. Wagner includes the Marseillaise  in the piano part towards the end. The piece is almost a dramatic scene, with an interesting piano introduction, and both Foster and Hargreaves gave the work full value.

Hargreaves opened part two with the final two of Wagner's early songs. Der Tannenbaum (The Fir Tree), which was written in Riga in 1838, and Tout n'est qu'image fugitives (Everythin is but a fleeting image) which dates from his Parisian period. Der Tannenbaum is a mystical dialogue between a young boy sailing on a lake and a fir-tree. In the slower, fir-tree passages, Wagner gives us hints of the music to come in his mature periods and there are even similarities to the music of the Norns. Tout n'est qu'image fugitives was much more of a parlour ballad, with a charming melodic line and nicely flowing texture.

Finally, Meister returned to sing Wagner's  Funf Gedichte fur eine Freauenstimme, the Wesendonck Lieder. These were composed in 1857 and 1858; they use the harmonic language of Tristan und Isolde and in fact, when he published them, Wagner described two as 'studies for Tristan und Isolde'.

Meister has a lovely bright, gleaming voice with a strong sense of line. She is moving into more dramatic roles   including the title roles in  Lucrezia Borgia and Aida, Elisabeth in Tannhauser and covering Sieglinde. She displayed nice control, able to fine her voice right down and open up for the climaxes in brilliant fashion. She displayed this admirably in the first song, Der Engel, though perhaps it did not quite achieve sufficient transcendent radiance at the end. Stehe still! was wonderfully dramatic, and Meister delivered the tongue-twisting words with aplomb. At the end we really did achieve rapture this time.

With my emphasis on line, it must not be thought that words were neglected, in fact Meister is a very clear, communicative singer and you hardly needed the printed words in a space like St. Paul's. With Im Treibhaus we really do reach Tristan und Isolde. Foster was sensitive and atmospheric in this piano part with its Tristan chorus, and Meister contributed a performance which combined expressive line with some nice colouration.  Schmerzen had some gloriously gleaming climaxes, but all nicely integrated into the overall shape, no nasty bulges here and a nice radiance at the end. Traume was simply beautiful, all line, shape, control and power.

Inevitably, a performance of the Wesendonck Lieder can be seen as more than just a song cycle, it is tempting for a critic to see the singer as trying on Isolde for size, but this should be avoided. As Meister develops her familiarity with Wagner's mature operas, her interpretation of the songs will develop and deepen, and perhaps one day we might hope we will hear her gleaming soprano as Isolde. But last night's performance of the Wesendonck Lieder was complete in its own right and was deservedly well received.

We had one final treat. The men of London Voices returned for An Webers Grabe which Wagner wrote in 1844 for the re-interment of Weber's body in Dresden after its removal from London. A darkly affecting piece for four-part unaccompanied men's chorus, it would probably have benefitted from more singers, but London Voices gave a confident and moving account.

The London Song Festival celebrates Verdi's bi-centenary on Wednesday, 5 June 2013, when Elizabeth Llewellyn and Nicholas Ransley perform Verdi's complete songs, again with Nigel Foster at the piano. Further information from the London Song Festival website.

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