Wigmore Hall Portrait Gallery – Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber perform an intricate sequence of portraits of literary figures by Wolf, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Hahn and Duparc
Listening link (opens in a new window):
on the iPlayer until 8 April
For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:
For those unable to hear the broadcast I have put together a Spotify playlist. Christiane has recorded the Strauss songs but nothing else from the program, so I have chosen suitable available versions:
What’s the music?
Wolf – 4 Mignon Lieder (1888) (15 minutes)
Brahms and Richard Strauss – Ophelia Lieder (interspersed – the music is Brahms’ 5 Ophelia-Lieder (1873) and Strauss’s 3 Ophelia Lieder Op.67 (1918) followed by Saint-Saëns – La mort d’Ophélie (1857) (14 minutes in total)
Hahn – 3 songs (Lydé (1900), A Chloris (1916) and Séraphine (1896) (8 minutes)
Duparc – 2 songs (Phidylé (1882), Romance de Mignon (1869) (9 minutes)
What about the music?
This is a really well chosen program from Karg and Huber, justifying the singer’s burning of the midnight oil (in the announcer’s anecdote!) to come up with some vivid character portraits that draw the casual listener in through the links between the songs. This is surely how a song recital should be structured.
Thanks to their enterprise we get an interesting blend of Romantic Lieder – that is, nineteenth century song writing that is much more obviously expressive. German composers are strongly represented, beginning with Wolf’s four settings of Goethe, and his poems on the tragic figure of Mignon.
Then our gaze turns to Ophelia, by way of five early Brahms Lieder and three late, eccentric interpretations by Richard Strauss – before a French alternative from Saint-Saëns.
Finally the heady fragrance of three sublime songs from Hahn and two more substantial, meaty efforts from Duparc clinch a consistently engaging recital.
On this evidence – listening on the radio rather than in the hall – Karg and Huber are ideally matched. Their delivery is especially emotive during the Wolf, where the soprano inhabits a lot of the distress and strife handed out to Mignon.
It is a great idea to fuse the portraits of Ophelia in this way, and anyone approaching Brahms songs for the first time would be surprised at the brevity and simplicity of them. They contrast nicely with the Richard Strauss examples, where Karg shows a lot of vocal agility without ever losing control.
The French songs are sumptuous, especially the Hahn, throwing open the doors to let in some Spring light.
What should I listen out for?
The words for these songs can be found here
1:55 – Heiss mich nicht reden (Bid me not speak) – the first Mignon setting moves in unexpected harmonic directions, never really sure of itself as Mignon seeks peace ‘in the arms of a friend’. Judging by the piano postlude this is not found.
5:04 – Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (Only those who know yearning) – a sombre minor-key opening from the piano.
7:25 – So lasst mich scheinen (Let me seem to be an angel) – a cold piano sound and a distracted vocal. Again the harmonies move restlessly, as does the melody, the song in a dream state but not at rest either.
10:47 – Kennst du das Land (Do you know the land)– a rather more positive outlook in this relatively relaxed song until a sudden outburst from the piano, which on its second appearance follows a particularly fraught passage from the soprano.
Brahms / Richard Strauss
18:57 – the first of five very brief Brahms songs – this one a thoughtful melody with singer and piano together.
19:42 – the second Brahms song, a mere 20 seconds!
20:06 – the first Strauss song inhabits a weird world of a piano part seemingly cut loose from its moorings, and a melody that doesn’t have an obvious resting point. Mysterious but intriguingly so.
22:37 – the third Brahms song, a much brighter affair.
23:12 – the second Strauss song trips along in a state of high agitation but is perhaps too short to make a sustained impact.
24:44 – the fourth Brahms song, another incredibly brief number – but beautifully delivered here.
25:32 – the fifth Brahms song – even though it is a minute long there is still a distinctive melody here.
26:49 – the third Strauss song, and a deeply mysterious one that casts its spell immediately through the piano line, broken momentarily by outbursts in the middle and at the end.
29:58 – an urgent song from the French composer, with the high soprano voice doubled by the left hand of the piano.
The words for the Hahn songs are to be found here
35:04 – Lydé – a much more positive outlook is immediately evident in this song, with an open air texture and bright vocal. There is a grand piano postlude, and what sounds like a wrong note.
37:50 – A Chloris – a twinkling piano introduction has a melodic ornamentation that takes its lead from Bach’s AIr on the G string before the soprano arrives in a lower register. A contemplative song, one of Hahn’s very best, this is beautifully sung by Karg. The interaction with the piano is ideal.
40:33 – Séraphine – a calm and radiant atmosphere runs through the third Hahn song.
The words for the Duparc songs can be found here
43:28 – Phidylé – Karg sounds imperious in her control of the fuller melody that makes the second part of this song. The exotic musical language is very much in thrall to Wagner, and reaches its peak with high notes and turbulent, stormy piano writing.
48:15 – Romance de Mignon – another perfumed song, but this is an early song suppressed by the composer. Duparc writes so well for the voice.
54:00 – Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade – going back to the first composer to write about the ‘mad woman’ Mignon, as Karg describes her. Huber shapes the piano part superbly under Karg’s urgent vocal.
Want to hear more?
It is difficult to suggest another step after such an intriguing and well-thought program, but underneath the songs of on the Spotify link above are further possibilities – including Wolf’s remarkable Prometheus, Brahms’s Four Serious Songs, in a legendary recording from Jessye Norman, and to finish some more Duparc.
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