Bernarda Fink Residency, Wigmore Hall

Ottorino Respighi’s Il tramonto (1914) for voice and string
quartet is a setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘The Sunset’, as
translated by Roberto Ascoli, and describes a lovers’ moonlit walk and the
woman’s subsequent life of endless mourning following the sudden death of her
beloved. Fink wove flexibly between song, arioso and recitative recounting an
engaging, touching narrative, the text clearly declaimed. While the
accompaniment texture is impressionistic and at times quite sparse, there is
yet a remarkable contrapuntal dynamism in the string lines, which the clean,
crisp playing of the Hugo Wolf Quartett brought to the fore.

The performers adeptly conveyed the quiet intimacy of the work. After a
theatrical string opening, a calm, lyrical episode describes one who ‘within
whose subtle being […] Genius and death contended’; here Fink’s soprano
was pure, light and floating, in keeping with the simplicity of the narrative
and the ‘sweetness of the joy’ experienced, before swelling warmly to
convey the passion felt by the lover for ‘the lady of his love’. There was
a poignant weariness in the delicate arioso when the waking woman finds her
lover dead. In contrast, Fink employed a warm melodious timbre to convey the
feminine selflessness of the grieving woman, ‘Her gentleness and patience and
sad smiles’.

Throughout, singer and quartet were fully integrated in narration and
mood-painting. There was some superb playing from cellist Florian Berner, his
opulently etched lines providing harmonic direction and structural cohesion,
particularly in the section depicting the glories of the natural world and the
hues of the sunset — ‘lines of gold/ Hung on the ashen cloud […] mingled
with the shades of twilight’ — in which the players achieved an admirable
motivic clarity. After depicting a life of self-denial and duty — a ‘kind
of madness’ — Fink expressively announced the woman’s final appeal for
peace, the beautiful violin solo with which the work closes tenderly
reinforcing the mood of bitter-sweet desolation.

Il Tramonto was preceded by an original, and surprisingly repressed and
intense, reading of Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A Op.41 No.3. In his
three Op.41 quartets, the composer turned from the narrative approach of his
earlier orchestral works and sought inspiration from the classical masterpieces
of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and the Hugo Wolf Quartett were certainly
concerned to create a sharply defined motivic texture, sometimes perhaps at the
expense of fulsomeness of tone.

Their delicate, careful approach was, however, perfectly suited to the
subtleties of the opening movement. Following a pensive introduction in which
the principal motive — the sighing fall of a perfect fifth — was clearly
engraved, the players established an elegant grazioso ambience, the
transparency revealing the Beethovian density of Schumann’s motivic method
and the intricacy of the rhythmic structures. The dislocated complexities of
the main theme — in which the seemingly misaligned legato cello line
juxtaposed with off-beat interjections from the other players — were
wonderfully controlled.

The urgent, restless syncopations of the second movement, a theme and
variations, culminated in a serene conclusion in the relative major mode,
leading to a profound reading of the Adagio, in which the instrumentalists
allowed themselves to indulge their more rhapsodic leanings, relishing the
beautiful, song-like theme, and making much of the sudden and disturbing
interruption of the repeated, march-like fragment which intrudes the relaxed

The vigorous finale might have been even more boisterous, for Schumann’s
robust, buoyant rhythms have a startling kinetic dynamism, but the four players
effectively controlled the architectural arches of the rondo form, concluding
with an extravagant coda.

After the interval, the focus was on Hugo Wolf’s musical response to the
warm Italian South: ten songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch and
the delightful Intermezzo. The latter — a rondo with richly diverse
episodes and restatements — is quite radical in the way that the luscious
opening melody is repeated interrupted by harmonically and rhythmically
disruptive passages. The Hugo Wolf Quartett found subtle humour in the
energetic vitality of the work, and presented a convincing account of this
experimental work.

The Intermezzo was embraced by two sets of five songs from Wolf’s
collection of forty-six translations of nameless Italian love poems, which
depict the full range of emotions — passion and jealousy, ecstasy and despair
— which characterise amorous relationships played out in everyday places:
streets, marketplaces, churches. These rispetti from Tuscany are brief
and mostly light-hearted, and the composer undoubtedly stamps his own
personality on this anonymous collection; but Fink’s fluent and sleek
delivery, captured the theatricality of the songs without being overly showy or

Graceful and poised, Fink took us on a journey as man and woman fall, by
turns, in and out of love. Fink can do ‘poised irony’ to a tee, as in
‘Wie lange schon’ (‘How I have yearned’) in which an artiste manquÈ
longs for a ‘musician as a lover!’ who ‘with gentle mien … bows his
head and plays upon the violin’. The members of the Hugo Wolf Quartett
relished the musical wit, exaggerating first the lovelorn self-indulgence of
the yearning would-be lover, then the inflated exuberance which greets the
arrival of the long-for virtuoso, and finally the dreadful reality of the
violinist’s pitiful technical aptitude.

Elsewhere Fink’s tone was intimate and personal, as in ‘Man sagt mir,
deine Mutter wolle es nicht’ (‘They tell me your mother disapproves’);
here Fink’s tone blossomed as she progressed from offended irritation to
passionate avowal: “defy her, come more often than before!” At times,
humour was to the fore, nowhere more so that in ‘Mein Liebster hat zu Tische
mich geladen’ (‘My sweethart invited me to dinner’); here the
accompaniment is illustrative, the accents in the quartet lines clearly
mimicking the futile chopping of the ‘rock hard’ bread with a ‘knife
quite blunt’.

This was a refined performance of these eloquent miniatures. It was a pity
that the programme notes revealed nothing of the decision to perform these
songs accompanied by string quartet, rather than piano; one would have welcomed
some account of the process of arrangement for what this might have revealed
about the relationship between voice and accompaniment in these songs (although
the notes did remark that the tender ‘Wohl kenn’ ich Euren Stand’ employs
a ‘string quartet-like texture’) — at the very least it would seem
courteous to acknowledge the arranger!

This was a song recital characterised by captivating, but understated
mastery. Bernarda Fink returns to the Wigmore Hall on 25th February to re-visit
the Italian landscape. Accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music, Italian
Passions will explore ‘the emotional extremes and the open-hearted Italian
spirit’ through a performance of Veracini, Merula, Vivaldi, Albinoni and

Claire Seymour

Robert Schumann, String Quartet in A Op.41 No.3; Ottorino Resphigi,
Il tramonto; Hugo Wolf, Five Songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch (‘Nein,
junger Herr’, ‘Wie lange schon’, ‘Ihr jungen Leute, die ihr zeiht ins
Feld’, ‘Gesegnet sei das Gr¸n’, ‘Wir haben beide lange Zeit
geschwiegen’); Intermezzo; Five Songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch
(‘Mein Liebster hat zu Tische mich geladen’, ‘Wohl kenn’ ich Euren
Stand’, ‘Man sagt mir, deine Mutter wolle es nicht’, ‘O w‰r’ dein
Haus durchsichtig ein Glas’, ‘Wenn du, mein Liebster’)

Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano; Hugo Wolf Quartett: Sebastian G¸rtler,
violin; RÈgis Bringolf, violin; Gertrud Weinmeister, viola; Florian Berner,
cello. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 6th February, 2013.

image_description=Bernarda Fink [Photo © Julia Wesely]
product_title=Bernarda Fink Residency, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Bernarda Fink [Photo © Julia Wesely]