Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Temple Song: Annette Dasch and Julius Drake

Annette Dasch
Temple Song returned on 23 September with a recital by German soprano Annette Dasch accompanied by Julius Drake. Their recital celebrated Wagner's centenary with programme centred on Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, plus Robert Schumann's Kerner-Lieder and a selection of Felix Mendelssohn's settings of Heinrich Heine.

By late 1840, Robert Schumann was happily married to Clara and all the painful years of struggle with her father were behind them. But you would not know it, from his song cycles. Schumann continued to explore melancholy subjects and choose texts which were preponderantly rather despondent. His 12 Lieder op 35 nach Gedichten von Justinus Kerner are not one of Schumann's best known cycles and remain somewhat under appreciated. The songs, all setting poems by the German poet Justinus Kerner, do not form a conventional cycle at all, Schumann seems to have simply chosen poems that moved him. The poems Schumann chose deal mainly with nature and the way the outer display of nature reflects the various inner turmoils of man.

Lust der Sturmnacht (Joy in a stormy night) plunges straight in with rainstorms gusting and raging outside. Dasch has a bright, jugend dramatisch soprano voice, with a strong middle and lower register. She conveyed the drama vividly with a sense of fevered brightness. This first song also gave us a taste of Dasch's fine way with the text, her diction was superb and in every song you were aware of the lied being a combination of text with music.

Stirb, Lieb' und Freud'! (Die, love and joy!) is a rather odd song about a young girl going to be a nun, crying die, love and joy. Dasch sang with quiet intensity and great simplicity, bringing radiance to the moments when the girl is transfigured. Dash's has a lovely warm tone and whilst there was a feeling that the sense of line was not always ideal, this improved as her voice warmed up as the programme progressed. Her upper register had the most amazing brilliance to it, which she used intelligently for heightened emphasis, though I was aware that it took a little managing.

Wanderlied (Song of travel) was more of a simpler volkslied, and Dasch brought out the sense of simple delight in the song. Erstes Grun (First Green) was poignant and quietly vivid, with a great sense of naivety and wonder at nature. This sense of discovery continued in Sehnsucht nach der Walgegend (Longing for woodland) but with an underlying sense of melancholy, the whole ending on a lovely dying fall.

Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes (To the wine glass of a departed friend)  both laments the death of one of Schumann's friends and expresses his love of German wine. It was a strangely austere song, which Dasch sang with a strong sense of mystery. She and Drake conveyed much through the simplest gesture, and throughout the performance was vivid and very tautly on edge.

Wanderung (Wandering) was more exuberant, complete with hunting calls in the piano, but even here the celebration is muted. Dasch and Drake gave the song a shadow that mitigated the lightness. Stille Liebe (Silent Love) was sung with quiet simplicity and affirmation, Drake contributing a beautiful postlude which entirely contradicts the sense of the text (Most bitterly regretting that none has done you justice yet). During the performances it was noticeable how Dasch used her whole body expressively. She sang from memory, which ensured that we were able to see every movement of her eyes and these were used constantly to help express the emotions implicit in Schumann's songs.

Frage (Question) was a simple, but quietly disturbing song which led directly into Stille Tranen (Silent tears), for me the best known song of the cycle. Dasch clearly responded to Schumann's lovely tune and gradually unleashed the power in her voice, letting us hear the brilliant upper register in the amazing climaz.

Wer machte dich so krank? (Who made you so ill?) is a song which achieves its means by very simple ends. An astonishingly bleak song in which the poet states that nature heals, but the work of men wounds unto death, which Dasch and Drake rendered unutterably intense and profound. This continued into the final song, Alte Laute (Sounds from the Past) in which Schumann uses almost identical musical material. Singing in hushed tone, Dasch brought out the bleakness of the end.

The songs seem to explore the melancholia which underlay Schumann's temperament, and Dasch and Drake conveyed the oddness, strangeness and bleakness of the cycle, its austere beauty. In such a finely tuned performance the cycle would could never be comfortable listening.

Dasch and Drake opened the second half with a group of Mendelssohn's settings of Heinrich Heine. Mendelssohn's lieder are still under appreciated, though Dasch opened with the best known song Auf Flugeln des Gesanges (On wings of song). Dasch shaped the melody beautifully, shading the voice off towards the top. She conveyed the simple wonder and delight of the song, finishing on a lovely thread of sound. Gruss (Greeting) was sung with artless simplicity and beautiful directness. Moregengruss (Morning greeting) was almost as straight forward as the previous song, movingly put over and very appealing. At the end, whilst the poet simply asks whether the sleeping girl is dreaming of him, Mendelssohn's music makes it clear that she is.

Reiselied (Song of Travel) was interesting rendered by Mendelssohn as a constant rushing onwards, with much busyness in the piano. But in Dasch and Drake's hands it was lightly done and Dasch conveyed the sheer breathlessness of the piece. Allnachtlich im Traume (Nightly in my dreams) was finely lyrical, but with a sense of underlying anxiety. Neue Liebe (New Love) brought on Mendelssohn's fairies, but these fairies had an edge to them and at the end both Dasch and Drake brought out the way the mood turns sinister.

The concert ended with Wagner's Wedendonck Lieder, songs in which Wagner is exploring the sound world he was composing in Tristan und Isolde. Though Wesendonck's texts do not stand up to the best that we had already heard that evening, Dasch and Drake paid the songs the complement of taking both text and music seriously. We were treated not a performance of sketches for Tristan und Isolde but to Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck's songs with Dasch giving full weight to Wesendonck's texts.

In the opening verses of Der Engel (The Angel) I did want more sense of a developing line in the voice, but there were some lovely moments and as Dasch's voice opened up we got a sense of a radiant, well filled line. In Stehe still! (Stand still!) she brought out the intense anxiety in the words and in the second verse there was a lovely shading off of the voice as she and Drake ushered in the mystery, leading to big, brilliant-toned radiance at the end.

Im Treibhause (In the greenhouse) is a somewhat unlikely combination of text and music, it is one of the two songs which most closely mirror Tristan und Isolde despite the exotic plant allegory of the text. Dasch's performance was not sung with the generous tones of Isolde, instead we had a vivid account of Wesendonck's song full of quiet intensity leading to a bleak ending full of beautiful tone. Schmerzen (Agonies) rose to glorious climaxes, but there was fine attention to detail in the quieter moments. Finally Traume (Dreams), though sung with bright tones showed Dasch exerting fine control. A steady build up of intensity was combined with a wonderful projection of words.

We were treated to two encores. First Schumann's Widmung in an impulsive performance which brought out all the intensity of feeling in Schumann's song. And then a quietly profound Mendelssohn setting of Eichendorff, Nachtlied.

Throughout, Dasch was well supported by Julius Drake, who showed great sympathy both for the bleak beauties of Schumann's song cycle and Wagner's rather more overheated piano textures.

Dasch made her Covent Garden debut as the Countess in Le nozze in Figaro and appeared at Wigmore Hall in July this year.  She is moving firmly into the jugend dramatisch roles, having sung Elsa in Lohengrin at Bayreuth and is about to make her role debut as Elisabeth in Tannhauser in Frankfurt.  She is next in London in February when she sings the Brahms Requiem with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Andris Nelsons.

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