Monday 30 November 2015

Cool and atmospheric - Christiane Karg and Graham Johnson in Schubert

Christiane Karg - photo Gisela Schenker
Christiane Karg - photo Gisela Schenker
Schubert songs; Christiane Karg, Graham Johnson; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Nov 28 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Before and after the catastrophe; exploring Schubert's songs in the context of the drama in his life

The Wigmore Hall’s Schubert: The Complete Songs project, spanning this season and next, is well under way. Saturday 28 November 2015's recital with Bavarian soprano Christiane Karg and pianist Graham Johnson proved Wigmore Director John Gilhooly’s point that there’s plenty of life in the song recital format yet.

Graham Johnson - photo Clive Barda
Graham Johnson
photo Clive Barda
To this audience member, whose first experiences of Schubert at the Wigmore were 35 years ago, it seems little has changed: the printed programmes are glossier, the gas mantles are gone, but the programming was just as thoughtful and the audience just as attentive and possibly even better informed now we have the benefit of Graham Johnson’s sleeve notes from the Hyperion Schubert Edition.

The first two songs were settings of Goethe: in ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ Karg’s unhinged singing underlined by the uneven thuds of the spinning wheel. This was no warm-up song but took us straight to the core of the evening. The other Goethe setting was ‘Nachtgesang’ – beautifully still and poised. Karg demonstrated a stunning technique and miraculous breath control and she manipulated the text in the stylish, uncontrived way that probably only a mother-tongue speaker would do.

The rest of the first half of the programme was settings of Schiller – all composed when Schubert was a teenager, but the conceit for the programme was that they anticipated the dark years after 1822/23 when Schubert was diagnosed with syphilis. ‘Das Geheimnis’ (first setting), ‘Das Mädchen aus der Fremde’ and ‘Die Entzückung zu Laura’ were all performed with the same intimate quality – though alas only to the first few rows of the audience – and the dynamic range went from pianissimo up to piano. Very beautiful and thoughtfully presented, but we were beginning to want a little more drama and a sense that the landscapes evoked were a little wider.

The centrepiece in the first half, ‘Elysium’ should have provided us with that, but Karg sang mostly off the voice and without the kind of emotional range that the epic text required. Or perhaps we had Brigitte Fassbaender in our aural memory (she recorded it for Hyperion), and Johnson certainly played as though accompanying a bigger voice.

For the three remaining songs of the first half there was the variety we had wanted. ‘Thekla’, the tale of lovers united in death, was as spooky as it could be, ‘Hoffnung’ very characterful and ‘Strophe aus Die Götter Griechenlands’ stunning and spacious.

The second half had the title ‘Before and after the catastrophe’ [of Schubert’s diagnosis], and the desolation and hopelessness of the songs in the first half came to the fore. There was more warmth in ‘Ihr Grab’ but a cool detachment in ‘Der Wachtelschlag’, ‘Die Rose’ and ‘Die Liebe hat gelogen’. Here again we craved a bit more anger in the singing. The next set of three songs were heart-rending: a vast, desperate ‘Du liebst mich nicht’ segue’d to ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’, performed with an almost shocking darkness, and the ‘Die Mutter Erde’ – Mother Earth that gathers all of us.

We ended with flowers: the gran scena ‘Vergißmeinnicht’ and as an encore ‘Blumenbrief’ where we finally saw a flirty side of Karg who has – and we now had evidence – played Mozart’s Susanna, Zerlina and Adele in Die Fledermaus. Technically, linguistically, pianistically, a great evening but, to my ears, sung in a way that was slightly too restrained for the emotional range of the programme. We wanted to believe she has been around the block a few times.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Gretchen am Spinnrade D118; Nachtgesang D119; Das Geheimnis D250; Das Mädchen aus der Fremde D252; Entzückung an Laura D390; Elysium D584; Thekla: eine Geisterstimme D595;Hoffnung D637; Strophe aus Die Götter Griechenlands D677; Ihr Grab D736; Der Wachtelschlag D742; Die Rose D745; Die Liebe hat gelogen D751; Du liebst mich nicht D756; Auf dem Wasser zu singen D774; Die Mutter Erde D788; Vergissmeinnicht D792

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