The tradition of German Lieder offers one of the archetypal evocations of Romanticism, that past sensibility wistfully suffused with the iconography of Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary adventurer standing boldly before nature, the lone hero consumed by love and an often semi-solipsistic sense of heightened personal emotion. Typically in the hands of the great composers granted voice tonight—Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Wolf—this lends itself all too readily to a sense of life drawn from anguish, unrequited love, broken hearts, and worldly transience. Though this evening’s recital at the Wigmore Hall spoke to these emotions as all recitals grounded in this tradition must, it was buoyed by a singular sense of gentle humour and vibrancy. This was very much the product of its distinguished soloists—soprano Joan Rodgers, baritone Roderick Williams, and pianist Roger Vignoles—for whom these songs are well-trodden terrain. Each of the three brought sensitivity and experience to the poetry at their command, the end result being a performance of much beauty, feeling, and—most welcomely for this repertoire—joy.
The performance opened with a short selection of Schumann Lieder, starting with his song ‘Er ist’s’ (‘Spring is here’). It is a short song taken from his collection Liederalbum für die Jugend, based on the poem written by Eduard Morike. Extolling the advent of the gentler season with its blue skies, mild breezes, and burgeoning flowers, it was an exuberant way to begin the programme. Ms. Rodgers’ nimble soprano sinuously navigated its folds, imbuing the piece with an intensity just hinting at the incipience of love alongside spring. This was followed by ‘Lied der Suleika’ (‘Suleika’s song’)—drawn from Myrten, the collection of twenty-six Lieder composed by Schumann as a wedding present for his fiancée, Clara—and ‘Das verlassene Mägdlein’ (‘The forsaken servant-girl’), based on another of Morike’s poems. The two offered apt diversity of feeling, ‘Lied der Suleika’ gently interwoven with textures of delicacy and touchingly romantic optimism, a woman quietly but fervently dreaming of her beloved; the same theme is touched upon in ‘Das verlassene Mägdlein’. Yet here it becomes heavy where before it was light, the memory of a faithless lover bringing not pleasure but tears. Ms. Rodgers brought both to vivid life, her diction excellent and her sensitivity to the text paramount. Her forlorn delivery of ‘O ging er wieder’, the narrator sorrowfully wishing the day could be unbidden, was ominous, her lower register dark and supple. The cycle closed with ‘Die Kartenlegerin’ (‘The fortune-teller’), restoring a touch of joyfulness through its fleet tempo and playful dialogue between piano and voice.
If one were to cavil, one could only say that though bristling with superb enunciation, technical precision, and beauty, Ms. Rodgers’ tone lacked an expressiveness that can raise such songs aloft from something joyous or sad to truly stirring and heartbreaking; and yet, one must admit it hardly her fault that many of these songs written for soprano favour deft and playfulness over pronounced depth. For this, Mr. Williams was undoubtedly gifted a more tragic, heartfelt selection, yet it is entirely to his credit as an artist that he sang with such poignancy. He plumbed the depths of the four Brahms songs that followed with richness, instilling quiet delicacy to ‘Geheimnis’ (‘Secret’) and tenderness to ‘Die Nachtigall’ (‘The Nightingale’). These were followed by an excellent rendition of ‘Feldeinsamkeit’ (‘Alone in the fields’). Mr. Vignoles slowed his playing nearly to stasis as Mr. Roderick invoked death with his quietly phrased ‘Mir ist, als ob ich längst gestorben bin’; the tempo was judiciously accelerated again immediately for Mr. Roderick’s beautifully delivered, melodious ‘Räume’, the final word of the poem binding physical space of nature with a sense of eternity. The selection of Brahms closed with ‘Botschaft’ (‘A message’), another tribute both to the serene power of Brahms’s Lieder as much as the technical dexterity of Mr. Vignoles’s playing and the exquisite range of Mr. Williams’s singing.
Most of Mahler’s more famous songs were taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of folk verses and poems collected by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. The poems are themselves touching in their elegant simplicity and generally innocent view of nature and the phenomenal world. Their unembellished style mingled with natural shadings of depth and wisdom was well suited to Mahler’s talents, and he crafted what are surely some of the greatest examples of Lieder around their humble foundations. The performance offered a selection of six of the songs, well chosen to complement both the strengths of Ms. Rodgers and Mr. Williams. They also offered a thoroughly entertaining mixture of the solemn and the comedic, never allowing the performance to drag under the weight of its own seriousness. Opening with ‘Rheinlegendchen’ (‘Little Rhine Legend’), an amusing little song playfully sung by Ms. Rodgers, it moved on to ‘Ich ging mit Lust’ (‘I walked joyfully’), executed by Mr. Williams with beautiful phrasing and delicate enunciation. ‘Das irdische Leben’ (‘Life on earth’) was, by contrast, filled with tragedy, a sobering account of a poor child starving to death. The fourth song, ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’ (‘Antony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes’), restored a welcome note of jollity to the proceedings. Its winding melody was wonderfully adumbrated by Mr. Vignoles, fast, vivacious, tinged with the composer’s mordant humour. Mahler interpolated the song into his Second Symphony, and Mr. Williams voiced its familiar refrain with his usual dark, velvet tone. The section closed with ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (‘In praise of high intellect’), a delightful duet featuring Mr. Williams as a donkey judging a song contest between a nightingale and a cuckoo, voiced by Ms. Rodgers. The two soloists played off one another’s comic timing splendidly with their light-hearted animal banter, highlighting a lighter, more comical side of a composer more often associated with his depth and gravity.
The second half of the programme comprised a selection from Hugo Wolf’s Lieder from his Italienisches Liederbuch. The poems, taken from a variety of Italian sources and granted rich musical voice by Wolf, explore a wide variety of expressions of love ranging from impish coquettishness to heartfelt despair. A definite performing tradition of the songs has not been established, and there has always been some ambiguity over the order in which they ought to be performed. The evening’s performance featured eighteen of the forty-six total songs, sung in an order determined by the soloists.
In practice, the songs were organised to create a type of dialogue between soprano and baritone parts, an amusing cross-section of different accounts of love from the male and female perspective. Ms. Rodgers and Mr. Williams played this out ingeniously, their natural dramatic charisma carried through in their renditions of the songs. Mr. Williams’s exuberance in the first song performed, No. 3, extolling the virtues of his sweetheart as ‘the loveliest for miles around’ with warmth and affection, contrasted mightily to Ms. Rodgers’s melancholy in the song to follow, No. 31, in which the narrator bemoans her beloved’s anger and disapproving family. As before, the comic was vividly juxtaposed with the poignantly tragic; the languorous, elegiac piano accompaniment of No. 20, in which Ms. Rodgers sings of weeping a ‘broad stream out of longing’, was placed next to No. 22, a light and frolicsome account by Mr. Williams of serenading a beautiful girl. Yet the greatest moments of delight belonged distinctly to Ms. Rodgers. In No. 11, she joyfully sang of her prayer to have a musician for a lover answered, the jubilant brightness of her upper register complementing the trembling playfulness of Mr. Vignoles’s accompaniment. After impressing with the depth of her feeling in No. 19—her range dexterously tested from a solid low B flat to a ringing high F—she went on to the final of Wolf’s songs performed, No. 46. As the narrator exultantly relished her twenty-one romantic conquests throughout Italy, Ms. Rodgers’s beautiful phrasing leant a parting touch of radiance to the cycle.
Not to be outdone, Mr. Williams returned with Ms. Rodgers to sing an encore further taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Mahler’s charmingly silly ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’—‘How to make naughty children behave’—tells the story of a traveller who passes a castle where dwell a mother and her several children. The man asks the mother whether her children are good or bad, for he has a host of presents to bestow upon those who are good; the mother quickly attests to their bad, disobedient nature, at which the man bids good day and promptly departs. Mr. Williams and Ms. Rodgers savoured the silliness of the story with winsome jubilance, playing off one another’s comedy to marvellous result. It was a fitting conclusion to an evening in which all three artists—Mr. Williams, Ms. Rogers, and Mr. Vignoles—consistently brought out the best in each other.
John E.De Wald