Wednesday 26 October 2022

Richly serious: mezzo-soprano Yajie Zhang and pianist Hartmut Höll in Brahms and Mahler in Oxford

Brahms: Songs Op. 59, Mahler: Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, 'Der Abschied' (Das Lied von der Erde); Yajie Zhang, Hartmut Höll; Oxford Lieder Festival
Brahms: Songs Op. 59, Mahler: Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, 'Der Abschied' (Das Lied von der Erde); Yajie Zhang, Hartmut Höll; Oxford Lieder Festival
Reviewed 25 October 2022 (★★★★)

The Chinese mezzo-soprano's wonderfully warm, rich voice brings a strong sculptural quality and an inner seriousness to songs by Brahms and Mahler

Yajie Zhang is a young Chinese mezzo-soprano who has been a member of the Young Singers Programme at Bavarian State Opera and has just joined the ensemble at Oper Leipzig. With pianist Hartmut Höll, she gave the lunchtime recital at the Oxford Lieder Festival on Tuesday 25 October 2022 at the Holywell Music Room. Their programme consisted of a selection from Brahms' Songs Op. 59 (from 1873), Mahler's Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (from 1884-85) and Der Abschied from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.

With their subjects of love and nature, the five Brahms songs almost prefigured the Mahler. Yajie Zhang has a dark, focused voice with a lovely lower register and an easy top. Both in manner and style, she seems fitted for the serious and the intense. 'Dämmrung senkte sich von oben' was sober and intent, developing impulsive drama before sinking into the deep dark. 'Auf dem See' was full of joyful anticipation yet with a serious undertow. Despite the urgency of her performance, 'Eine gute, gute Nacht' was full of sober drama. This became stormy indeed in 'Mein wundes Herz verlangt'. At first urgent, then gentler, the Brahms group ended with 'Dein blaues Auge', again serious and intent.

Mahler's Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, setting his own poetry, takes these themes and twists them, an intense young man undertaking a journey akin to Winterreise. Written in the wake of his own unhappy love affair, Mahler wrote the songs with piano accompaniment and only later orchestrated them.

'Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht' began with serious drama, the sculptural quality of Zhang's phasing complemented by Hartmut Höll's vivid piano. The lighter second verse still had a sober aspect and things got really dark in the third. This was one intense young man. 'Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld' was vivid and strong, the enjoyment here somewhat muted. Zhang and Höll's wasn't a light treatment of Mahler's music, this was vibrant and intense, only towards the end getting lighter and more interior. 'Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer' was vivid, dark and impulsive. We ended on a note of haunting melancholy in 'Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz', the middle verse quiet and intense with some magical piano playing from Höll. Zhang's German was entirely creditable, though you rather needed the printed text to follow the words entirely.

Whilst Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (written 1908-09) is best known in its orchestral version, Mahler did create a piano version, but unlike Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen this piano version is an arrangement of the original orchestral version. We heard the final number from the work 'Der Abschied' in Mahler's piano version.

From the very opening phrase, Zhang's account was highly focused, the rich rhetoric of her performance complemented by a highly sculptural approach to the phrasing. She made the simplest phrase feel significant, pregnant with meaning. At times her sober, finely shaped account would be surrounded by the storm of Höll's piano. At the very end, however, Zhang really did let rip before the final, magical 'Ewig'.

Despite playing Mahler's piano version, Höll seemed inspired by the full orchestral score and his playing was full of strong articulations, and highly marked notes almost to the point of over emphasis. At times we seemed to be listening to two different performances, his demonstrative and vividly over-done, hers sculptural and at times classical. And I did rather think that Höll ought to have had a page turner.

The audience response was warm indeed, and were treated to an encore in, I think, Zhang's native Chinese.

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