Wednesday 13 October 2021

Modified rapture: Diana Damrau and Maciej Pikulski in Schumann, Duparc, Strauss & Spanish songs at Wigmore Hall

Diana Damrau
Diana Damrau

Schumann, Duparc, Granados, Turina, Obradors, Strauss; Diana Damrau, Maciej Pikulski; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 October 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A welcome recital from the German soprano, in an eclectic programme of German, French and Spanish song

Soprano Diana Damrau is a singer whom we have not heard more than we have (most recently in 2018, when illness forced her to drop out of Paris Opera's new production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, see my review) and we last saw her in 2016 as Lucia in Covent Garden's new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, see my review), so it was a pleasure to be able to catch her Wigmore Hall recital on Tuesday, and clearly many others thought so. The hall was full and the response to her first entry on stage was nothing short of rapturous.

At Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 12 October 2021, soprano Diana Damrau and pianist Maciej Pikulski gave a recital which moved from Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben, through songs by Duparc to a Spanish group with songs by Granados, Turina and Obradors, then finally a group of songs by Richard Strauss. It was quite an eclectic mix, providing a range of styles and contrasts through the evening rather than centring on a single emotional journey, though love was the prevailing theme throughout.

We began with Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben, a very great cycle indeed though the idea of two male artists (Schumann and poet Chamiso) creating a work about woman's experience must now give us a moment's pause. Damrau and Pikulski didn't contextualise or explain, they simply presented us with the work in a performance where Damrau seemed to embody the female protagonist.

Maciej Pikulski
Maciej Pikulski
The cycle began with Damrau almost singing to herself, in short nervous phrases which gradually developed into thoughtful paragraphs as the protagonist's emotions settled. 'Er, der Herrlichste von allen' was nervous and impulsive, very personal with the sense of her living the emotions. We also became aware that this was not necessarily a large voice, but that she knew how to use it and throughout the cycle the words were of prime importance, particularly the way they shaped her approach to the music. Much of the music was quietly intense, so the following two songs reflected the text in confiding way. With 'Helft mir, ihr Schwestern', more demonstrable emotion was allowed out with urgency, and a strong piano postlude. 'Süsser Freund, du blickest' was touching and perhaps here I could have done with a little less emotionalism. 'An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust' was urgent and vivid, full of personality and character which made the sober, grave nature of the final song all the more profound. Sung quietly, almost haltingly, Damrau seemed frozen and the emotion was continued by the magical postlude. Throughout the cycle, Pikulski provided a strongly characterised yet discreetly supportive piano.

The move from Schumann to Duparc is quite a leap, and we plunged straight in with the exotic languor of L'invitation au voyage. Languid and luxuriating in the music, Damrau sang in a highly characterful way. Unlike some singers in Duparc, it wasn't so much the 'luxe, calme et volupté' of the voice as what Damrau actually did with it that counted. Extase was intimate and full of character, we really believed it, whilst Le manoir de Rosemonde was strong and intense. Soupir was highly emoted and emotional, so much in such a small song, whilst Chanson triste was very much in the moment. Damrau and Pikulski's way with Duparc was not necessarily the usual one, approaching the songs more as character pieces, sketches of emotion, rather than moments of gorgeousness to be simply luxuriated in.

After the interval, we had an intriguing group of 20th century songs by Spanish composers in which each composer seemed to be investigating their song heritage. The sense of folk-lore was never far away, and it was never clear whether we were listening to an echo of the traditional music of Spain, or contemporary composers reimagining of it in the light of non-Spanish expectations.

Granados' 'No lloréis ojuelos' comes from his 7 Canciónes amatorias, a collection of love songs from 1914-15. This was simply lovely, Granados writes a restless, undulating vocal line which very much seemed to suit Damrau's voice. Turina's 'Tu pupila es azul' is the second of 3 Poemas from 1933, the text here written in imitation of Byron. The piece was full of drama and very folkloric inflections in vocal line and piano, plus a very sexy melisma at the end. Finally a trio of songs by Obradors, all coming from his four-volume Canciones clásicas españolas, described in Richard Stokes' programme note as songs that "refurbish melodies and poetic themes in what sounds like an authentic manner". Al Amor was full of seduction and drama, everything we might think of when the words 'Spanish song' come to mind, whilst 'Del cabello más sutil' was simpler and more romantic, though I found Damrau emoted a bit too much and would have liked less. This was certainly true of the curious 'Chiquitita la novia'. The words are so odd and presumably satirical, yet the song came over as strongly traditional whilst Damrau's over the top performance veered a little too close to mannered for my taste, though other audience members found it funny. 

We finished with Richard Strauss, with seven of his most popular songs. Listening to Damrau's artistry here, I have to admit that I admired more than I was moved, she rather put me in mind of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the way she brought artistry to bear on each of the songs, creating a highly detailed picture which for some people can obscure the emotional core of the song. Einerlei was sung with a light touch, the highly decorative vocal line coming after a lovely, long piano introduction. Das Rosenband had a similar light touch, with a strongly intimate character, whilst Ständchen was rapture worn lightly. We got Freundliche Vision twice as she was not satisfied with her first performance as she had been convinced that she was going to sing another song. Touchingly intimate, the voice on a thread at times, there was also plenty of creamy tone. Wiegenlied featured a lightly traced vocal line floated over quite a strong piano, whilst Allerseelen was very personal with the voice not allowed to blossom until the very end, and Zueignung made a strong ending.

Except, of course, it was not the end. The audience response shaded from vociferous enthusiasm into positive rapture, and we were treated to Strauss' Morgen as a final song.

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