Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall

As in their December 2011 recital at the Wigmore Hall, Schwanewilms and
pianist Charles Spencer chose to open both halves of the evening with songs
from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn — indeed they repeated the
previous programme almost in its entirety, deviating only at the end when three
songs by Richard Strauss replaced Mahler’s five R¸ckert Lieder. But, who
minds such replication when the singing is so refined, the artistry so
expressive and the partnership between soprano and accompanist so finely

Schwanewilms can command the world’s grandest operatic stages: her voice
is luxurious and immense, and her sense of character and situation discerning
and adroit. Indeed, commenting upon her recent Metropolitan Opera appearance as
the Empress in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, one critic observed
‘Schwanewilms was still a powerful presence even when she was silent’. But,
she always tailors the expanse and colour of her voice, and the articulation of
the text, to the poetic or dramatic situation. Pianist Roger Vignoles has
suggested that ‘to enter the world of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs is like
opening a picture book. Each page gives us another character, another fairy
tale, another episode, whether happy or tragic, in the tale of human
existence’, and here Schwanewilms put her protean naturalism to superb effect
in Mahler’s enchanting songs, by turns wryly comic and sweetly pastoral.

Bird-song pre-dominated. In ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’ (How to
make naughty children behave), Spencer’s dry staccato and droll
rubatos introduced Schwanewilms’ nonchalant presentation of the
folky ballad, the ringing cuckoo-calls amusingly onomatopoeic. Sadly, the
cuckoo met his demise in the following song, ‘Ablˆsung in Sommer’ (The
changing of the summer guard), exhausted by his own lusty singing, to be
replaced by the nightingale; this shift from the rustic clowning of the
preceding song to transcendent lyricism was perfectly represented by the
soprano’s silky tone, crystalline at the top, and Spencer’s intricate

In ‘Ich ging mit Lust’ (I walked joyfully) the simple sweetness of the
rising phrases blossomed to acquire an ecstatic sheen as Schwanewilms conveyed
the pure delight inspired by ‘Die kleinen Waldvˆgelein im gr¸nen Wald!’
(those woodland birds in the green wood!). Changes of key and texture were
thoughtfully nuanced, the curving rhapsodic phrases uplifting, and the ending
poignant — ‘Wo ist dein Herzliebster geblieben?’ (Where is your
sweetheart now?). Spencer effectively pointed the piquant harmonies and twists
in ‘Verlorne M¸h’ (Wasted effort), and Schwanewilms proved equally
convincing as both the crafty flirtatious shepherdess who attempts to entice
her ‘laddie’ and the stubbornly unyielding shepherd boy himself —
mulishly flinging his final refusal at the enamoured lass, ‘Ich mag es halt
nit!’ (I’ll have none of it).

The later sequence of Wunderhorn songs plumbed deeper emotions,
beginning with ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ (Farewell and parting). Schwanewilms
bloomed gloriously through the impassioned departure depicted in the first
stanza, while the rich hues of her lower register cast a more ominous shadow
over the second stanza, with its allusions to darkness and death: ‘Es
scheidet da Kind schon in der Wieg!’ (The child departs in the cradle even!).
The closing leave-takings — ‘Ade! Ade!’ — expressed first urgent desire
and then resigned acceptance.

‘Rheinlegendchen’ (Little Rhine legend) span a charmingly innocent
narrative, the piano interludes playing their part in conveying imagery and
feeling. ‘Wo die schˆnen Trompeten blasen’ (Where the splendid trumpets
sound) was one of the highlights of the Mahler lieder, beautifully
poetic as the soprano first enriched her tone, ‘Das M‰dchen stand auf, und
liefl ihn ein’ (The girl arose and let him in), and then retreated, the
ethereally floating phrase, ‘Willkommen, lieber Knabe mein’ (O welcome,
dearest love of mine), suggesting the fragility of the wondrous, longed-for
moment. Schwanewilms bestowed a warmth upon the soldier’s admission that he
must soon depart, before Spencer’s alert ‘trumpet-calls’ (reminding us
that in these songs Mahler conjures on the piano the diverse instrumental
colours of the original orchestral scoring) whisked him away to war.

We began where we started, with a singing competition between the cuckoo and
nightingale, ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (In praise of high intellect) with
Schwanewilms once more relishing the opportunity to imitate the musical calling
cards of the natural world.

Between the two Mahler sequences, songs by Lizst encouraged both singer and
accompanist to expand their expressive range. In ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ (Ah,
while I sleep) Schwanewilms demonstrated her thrilling power and consummate
control, swelling and then retreating to an exquisite pianissimo with
absolute assurance, and subtly modifying the colour of the final held note to
underscore the change from major to minor tonality: ‘Soudain mon ‚me/
S’Èveillera!’ (at once my soul/will wake!) Three songs from ‘Lieder aus
Schillers Wilhelm Tell’ followed. ‘Der Fischerknabe’ (The
fisherboy) was notable for the weightless, gliding rise in the closing line,
‘Ich locke den Schl‰fer,/ Ich zieh ihn herein’ (I lure the slumberer/ and
drag him down), the transparent piano postlude underpinning the melodic
paradox. Similarly, in ‘Die Hirt’ (The shepherd) and ‘Der Alpenj‰ger’
(The alpine hunstman), Spencer’s part in the communicating the narrative was
not inconsiderable.

Closing the first half, an impassioned rendition of ‘Loreley’ showcased
Schwanewilms’ ability to effortlessly modulate the mood and the extraordinary
power and flexibility of her voice across an astonishing range. The tone was
sumptuous, the legato seamless, and the complex architecture ofo the song
skilfully crafted.

One of the finest Straussian’s performing on the operatic stage today,
Schwanewilm offered three of the composer’s songs to conclude. The melodic
lines of ‘Die Nacht’ were imbued with energy, painting a vivid portrait of
darkness as it extinguishes and steals the lights of the world — ironically,
the soprano’s own voice reverberated with the flowers’ colours and the
river’s silvery gloss which the nocturnal visitant plunders. Spencer’s
urgent, climbing lines and heavy accompanimental rhythms brought a sense of
desperation to the closing verses of ‘Geduld’ (Patience). The concluding
‘Allerseelen’ (All Souls’ Day) was laden with nostalgia, most especially
in the intense repetitions of longing (‘Gib mir nur einen deiner s¸flen
Blicke’, (give me but one of your sweet glances)) and the rapture of the
final cry, ‘Komm’ an mein Herz, dafl ich dich wieder habe’ (come to my
heart and so be mine again).

Schwanewilms knows and understands these songs, but the delivery retains a
freshness which is entrancing. Quite simply, one cannot imagine anyone singing
them better.

Claire Seymour


Mahler — From Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Um schlimme Kinder
artig zu machen’; ‘Ablˆsung im Sommer’; ‘Ich ging mit Lust’;
‘Verlorne M¸h’; ‘Scheiden und Meiden’; ‘Rheinlegendchen’; ‘Wo
die schˆnen Trompeten blasen’; ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’. Liszt —
‘Oh! quand je dors’; ‘Lieder aus Schillers Wilhelm Tell’;
‘Die Loreley’. Richard Strauss: ‘Die Nacht’; ‘Geduld’;
‘Allerseelen’. Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Charles Spencer, piano. Wigmore
Hall, London, 13 March 2014.

image_description=Anne Schwanewilms [Photo by Javier del Real]
product_title=Anne Schwanewilms, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Anne Schwanewilms [Photo by Javier del Real]