Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall

The songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn offered
Schwanewilms the opportunity to demonstrate a great range of characterisation
and dramatic situation, embracing intimacy and exuberance. She garnered a
surprising and delightful drollery in the opening ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig
zu machen’ (‘How to make naughty children behave’), her insouciant
‘cu-cuckoo’ ringing clear as a bell. Charles Spencer delivered the
accompaniment’s piquant chromatic inflections with a deft touch. The simple
folk-like ambience was sustained in the bucolic ‘Verlorne M¸h’ (‘Wasted
effort’), as the shepherdess attempts to lure her mate, offering first to go
walking, then a ‘morsel’ from her basket and finally her heart. A glossy
tone and seamless, bel canto legato prevailed. I wondered whether that
this effortlessly fluency at times affected the clarity of diction; but the
German speaker accompanying me reassured me that Schwanewilms’ use of the
text was subtle but clear, and undoubtedly idiomatic.

In ‘Ablˆsung im Sommer’ (‘The changing of the summer guard’), the
cuckoo returned, this time evoked by the piano whose perpetuum mobile
signifies the evolutionary progression of the seasons — as the cuckoo sings
himself ‘to death’ and the nightingale assumes the mantle of summer’s
song-bearer. Both here and in the following ‘Ich ging mit Lust’ (‘I
walked joyfully’), Schwanewilms’ breath control was superb, enabling her to
shape extended rhapsodic lines; her velvet tone is a cloth of many colours, and
she captured the myriad hues of the natural world – the verdant softness of
the ‘green wood’, the silky sheen of the moon’s’ charming, sweet

Liszt’s setting of Hugo’s ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ permitted a brief
excursion into the French language, and Schwanewilms expressively and
convincingly responded to the text, before returning to her native tongue for
lieder from Schiler’s Wilhelm Tell, songs in which Liszt evokes the
Alpine landscape with grandeur and passion. The grassy lake in ‘Der
Fischerknabe’ (‘The fisherboy’) shimmered stilly, but as the waters lap
around his breast and call from the depth, increasingly impetuous scalic runs
in the piano conveyed the potency of his ‘bliss of delight’. ‘Horn
calls’ discreetly underpinned the beautifully resonant vocal line in ‘Der
Hirt’ (‘The shepherd’), and the juxtapositions of major and minor
tonalities enhanced the warm, tender ache in the voice. The more tempestuous
‘Der Alpenj‰ger’ (‘The alpine hunstman’), in which thunderous
tremblings accumulate, climaxed with a striking piano postlude. An intense and
impassioned setting of Heine’s ‘Loreley’ brought the Lisztian sequence to
a close, and enabled Schwanewilms once again to demonstrate her consummately
controlled delivery of narrative.

Four more songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn followed after the
interval. ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ (‘Farewell and Parting’) presents a
broader emotional and dramatic canvas; the first stanza depicts the breathless,
theatrical departure of three horsemen who gallop through the gate beneath the
beloved’s watchful gaze, while second strikes a more poignant note, exploring
the pain and finality of departure and death. The power and precision of
Schwanewilms’s climactic high notes in the first part contrasted with the
final farewells, ‘Ade! Ade!’, which she delivered in a loving, almost
vulnerable whisper.

The cuckoo and nightingale both returned for ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’
(‘In praise of high intellect’), this time competing to be the prize
songster in a musical contest adjudicated by a donkey. Schwanewilms relished
the individual ‘voices’ given to each ‘character’, and concluded with
an alarmingly realistic ass’s bray! After the gentle ‘Rheinlegendechen’
(‘Little Rhine Legend’), in which the atmospheric rocking of the piano
accompaniment perfectly captured the lapping waters as they flow timelessly to
the ocean, in the final song from the sequence, ‘Wo die schˆnen Trompeten
blasen’(‘Where the splendid trumpets sound’) Schwanewilms displayed her
lustrous, rich tone to full effect, signifying a transition from the whimsical
naivety of Mahler’s early songs to the complex emotional profundities of the
composer’s five R¸ckert Lieder.

Here, Schwanewilms and her accompanist rose to majestic heights of
musicianship. The contemplative intimacy of ‘Liebst du um Schˆnheit’
(‘If you love for beauty’) was particularly stunning. Schwanewilms can
produce an effortless, floating line, spinning out a high thread of sound,
endlessly and ethereally until, almost weightlessly, the thrillingly tender
pianissimo disperses into the air. She balances eloquence and grace
with deep affective insight, as was supremely apparent in a spell-binding
rendition of ‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’). Here, the sustained
focus of her lower range was in evidence, the controlled and crafted phrases
indicating the valiant endurance of the protagonist. The final song, ‘Ich bin
der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world) probed expressive
depths, closing with a spine-chilling piano coda; the long silence which
subsequently embraced performers and audience alike was a testament to the epic
scale of the emotions evoked and communicated.

Schwanewilms seem to have it all: unfailingly precise intonation, a
polished, gleaming sound, almost superhuman breath control. She also has
considerable stage presence and self-assurance: utterly in command of the voice
and the material, she revealed a profound understanding of these songs while
retaining a sense of freshness and spontaneity. The communication between
singer and pianist, and with the audience, was sincere and generous. No wonder
the applause was rapturous.

Claire Seymour


Mahler — From Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Um schlimme Kinder artig zu
machen; Verlorne M¸h; Ablˆsung im Sommer; Ich ging mit Lust.

Liszt — Oh! quand je dors; Lieder aus Schillers ‘Wilhelm Tell’; Die

Mahler — From Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Scheiden und Meiden; Lob des
hohen Verstandes; Rheinlegendchen; Wo die schˆnen Trompeten blasen. Five
R¸ckert Lieder.

image_description=Anne Schwanewilms [Photo by Johanna Peine courtesy of VMC]
product_title=Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Charles Spencer, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 8th December 2011.
product_id=Above: Anne Schwanewilms [Photo by Johanna Peine courtesy of VMC]