Monday, 21 December 2015

Reined in - Waltraud Meier and Joseph Breinl at Wigmore Hall

Waltraud Meier - photo Nomi Baumgartl
Mahler Kindertotenlieder, Wagner Wesendonck Lieder, Mahler songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Rückert Lieder; Waltraud Meier, Joseph Breinl; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Dec 15 2015
Star rating: 3.5

We had to wait for the encores to hear Meier’s voice really fill the hall, if only we had had more thrills like these earlier in the evening.

At the age of almost sixty German mezzo-turned-dramatic-soprano Waltraud Meier has recently sung her last Isolde on the stage and is going to focus her attention on the Lieder repertoire. In this week’s rare visit to London she sang a programme of Mahler and Wagner with her compatriot Joseph Breinl to a capacity Wigmore Hall on 15 December 2015, with Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, three songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Mahler's Rückert Lieder.

It takes an experienced and confident artist to start with the Kindertotenlieder but in many ways these were the most successful of the official programme – spare and intimate, with Meier demonstrating total control over her breath and her phrasing of Rückert’s texts and, appropriately, didn’t give us her luxury Isolde voice. Breinl’s piano playing drew out the links between Mahler and the Second Viennese School. However, in the last song ‘In diesem Wetter’ reassuring us as the storm raged outside, the intimacy came across as slightly too cosy. I couldn’t help thinking irreverently of Julie Andrews as Maria with the Von Trapp children.

We expected the luxury voice in spades for the Wesendonck Lieder but alas the sparse piano playing that worked for me in the Mahler didn’t support the singing in the Wagner. There were few orchestral colours here and Meier sang to the first few rows of the audience only. It all seemed a little underpowered and the intonation suffered in places as a result. In the second song, ‘Stehe still’ (‘Stand still!’), the voice sounded tired and threadbare, though for ‘Schmerzen’ (‘Agonies’) she pulled out all the stops and we heard a proper Wagnerian voice at last.

The three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn demonstrated Meier’s storytelling skill. ‘Rheinlegendchen’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ and ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’ all totally engaging though again a little less expansive than we would have liked. In the Rückert Lieder we missed the orchestra all the more because Breinl gave us a bumpy ride on the piano. They ended with ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (‘If you love for Beauty’), the song Mahler wrote for Alma in 1902 when she was pregnant with their first child. Tender and sunny, sung more legato than the other four, it brought us back to the beginning of the evening when things were much happier for the Mahlers.

We had to wait for the encores to hear Meier’s voice really fill the hall. First Brahms’ ‘Von ewiger Liebe’ gave us a taste of what we thought we were going to get in the main programme: big, orchestral playing, wonderfully rich dark singing and a sense of movement and drama. To finish with, a hair-raising ‘Erlkönig’ that ground to a spectacular halt with the final phrase ‘In seinen Armen das Kind … war tot’ sending shivers down spine. If only we had had more thrills like these earlier in the evening …

Reviewed by Ruth Hansford
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