Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

All these qualities were much in evidence
in this diverse programme of songs by Mozart, Clara and Richard Schumann and
Poulenc, in which Karth‰user was sympathetically accompanied by pianist Eugene

Classical poise and grace were the order of the day in the opening four
songs by Mozart. However, Karth‰user did not fail to bring considerable
dramatic energy to the small forms. In ‘Das Veilchen’ (The violet) the
folk-like vivacity was superseded by darker shadows in the minor key central
stanza — in which the violet, ripe for picking by the shepherdess, laments
the transience of its beauty — the veiled pianissimo unison between
voice and piano characteristic of the sensitive communication between the
performers throughout the recital. A rasping ‘Ach’, as the unheeding
shepherdess draw near, brought a note of humour and realism to Goethe’s
Romantic imagery.

The languorous falling 6th which commences ‘An die
Einsamkeit’ (Be my consolation) was expressively shaped, and the strophic
melody delicately phrased; this song also offered a glimpse of the soprano’s
impressively focused and plush lower register. In the more expansive and
rhetorical ‘Abendempfindung’ (Evening thoughts), the performers switched
readily between lyrical and dramatic moods. Asti’s piano postlude was
particularly expressive, reflecting the sentimentality of Joachim Heinrich
Campe’s text. In contrast, ‘Der Zauberer’ (The magician) sparkled from
Asti’s initiating upwards sweeps, through the melodic chromatic twists, to
the piano’s final impetuous, spiralling demisemiquaver descent. Karth‰user
and Asti made a persuasive case for this neglected region of Mozart’s oeuvre.

The tempestuous opening of Clara Schumann’s ‘Er ist gekommen’ (He came
in storm and rain) marked a striking shift to a world of Romantic turbulence,
and Karth‰user took pains to inject an urgent thrill into her powerful soprano
as the poet-speaker sings of her fervent communion with her beloved. Asti’s
airy postlude perfectly captured both the mood of quiet resignation and the
image of the fading figure of the lover as he journeys onwards.

Richard and Clara Schumann collaborated on settings of texts by R¸ckert in
1840 and Richard wrote to his publisher, Friedrich Kistner: ‘My wife has
composed some very interesting songs, which have inspired me to compose a few
more from R¸ckert’s Liebesfr¸hling. Together they should form a
very nice whole, which we should like to publish in one book.’ These
songs (Clara’s Op.12 and Richard’s Op.37) are deeply expressive of their
love. Karth‰user does not have a naturally velvety tone, but in ‘Liebst du
um Schˆnheit’ (If you love for beauty) she controlled the lyrical lines with
assurance and expressivity. The transparency and delicacy of ‘Die gute
nacht’ (The good night) closed the sequence with poetic intimacy, but the
best of the Clara Schumann songs was ‘Warum willst du and’re fragen’ (Why
enquire of others), the piano introduction establishing a flowing momentum and
Karth‰user showing meticulous care as she responded to the text. After the
radiance of the rising, exclamatory assertion, ‘Sondern sieh die Augen an!’
(look at these eyes!), the third stanza began with a beautifully hushed
whisper, ‘Schweigt die Lippe deinen Fragen’ (Are my lips silent to your
questions), growing in intensity and with well-judged ritardando,
‘Oder zeugt sie gegen mich?’ (or do they testify against me?). This was
singing of deep insight.

Richard Schumann’s Frauenliebe und —leben Op.42 (A Woman’s
Love and Life) concluded the first half and again Karth‰user’s wide-ranging
tessitura and rounded lower register enhanced the tenderness and elation of
these songs. ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ (He the most wonderful of all)
was expansive, conveying a deep Romantic ardour, Asti’s repeating quavers
quivering like a beating heart, and the well-crafted bass line providing a sure
foundation for the voice’s outbursts of passion, while the dotted rhythms of
the rising counter-melodies in the right hand engaged effectively with the
voice. The changes of tempi and subtle rubatos of ‘Ich kann’s nicht
fassen’ (I cannot grasp it). in which the woman exclaims her disbelief at
having been chosen by her beloved. were skilfully handled; and the piano’s
staccato chords help to generate excitement and restlessness, which were
ultimately subdued by the closing major tonality cadence.

The low register of ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ (You ring on my finger)
suggested the woman’s confidence and security, and the soprano unleashed her
powerful instrument in avowing, ‘Ich will ihm dienen, ihm leben, ihm
angehˆren ganz’ (I shall serve him, live for him, belong to him wholly). A
brighter vocal tone conveyed the exuberance and joy of the wedding preparations
enacted in ‘Helf mir, ihr Schwestern’ (Help me, O sisters), while the
performers shaped ‘S¸sser Freund’ (Sweet friend) with dexterity, driving
towards the moment when she tells her new husband of her dream that one day she
will awaken and find his visage gazing up at her. The lullaby ,‘An meinem
Herzen, an meiner Brust’ (On my heart, at my Breast), was perhaps less
successful, Karth‰user’s voice less focused and the oscillating piano motif
lacking absolute clarity; but, the sudden sweeping away of happiness in ‘Nun
has du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ (Now you have caused my first pain) was
affecting, as both voice and piano steadily plummeted, as she bows over her
now-dead husband, Asti’s eloquent postlude encapsulating the tragedy of this
brief lyric.

After the interval, Karth‰user and Asti presented a comprehensive selection
of songs by Poulenc representing the full spectrum of the composer’s eclectic
idioms and diverse forms — from flippancy to serenity, declamation to
lyricism. However, the nine settings of the symbolist poet, Paul …luard, which
‘Tel jour tell nuit’ (Such a day, such a night) are remarkably consistent
in their mood of calm mystery, and from the opening song, ‘Bonne journÈe’
(A good day), Karth‰user’s appreciation of the relationship between the
flowing contours of Poulenc’s idiosyncratic melodies and the harmonic twists
and nuances which underscore the text setting was vividly apparent. Both this
song and the subsequent ‘Une ruine coquille vide’ (A ruin empty shell)
conveyed the elusiveness of …luard’s imagery through the soprano’s limpid
tone and the tranquillity of the accompaniment. The rippling accompaniment of
‘Le front comme un drapeau perdu’ (My forehead like a surrended flag)
shattered the composure and built into a whirling agitation, and the brief
song, ‘Une roulotte couverte entuiles’ (A tiled gypsy wagon) added to the
unsettled mood, for Karth‰user’s low voice was focused but restrained, and
the ending — ‘Ce melodrama nous arrache/ La raison du coeur’ (this
melodrama rips from us the hearts’ sanity) — disturbingly abrupt.

‘A toutes brides’ (Riding full tilt) was full of brightness and spirit;
the striking clarity of line in ‘Une herbe pauvre’ (A meagre blade of
grass), and the placid high piano chords were reminiscent of the controlled
aloofness of Satie. A brisk, intense account of ‘Je n’ai envie que de
t’aimer’ (I long only to love you) was followed by ‘Figure de force
br˚lante et farouche’ (Image of force fiery and wild) which retreated from
its initial passionate imagery of black hair tinted with gold and engulfed
tainted stars, restoring the predominant serenity. In the closing lines —
‘Intraitable dÈmesurÈe/ Inutie/ Cette santÈ b‚tit une prison (obstinate
immoderate/ useless/ this health build a prison) Karth‰user’s soprano
assumed a cold steeliness, capturing the stiltedness of the text. She adroitly
shaped the gradually intensifying melodies of the concluding ‘Nous avons fait
la nuit (We have created night), rising to an ecstatic passion which was
prolonged in Asti’s moving postlude.

The first of three mÈlodies to texts by Apollinaire, ‘Voyage ‡ Paris’
— one of Poulenc’s more glib frivolities — was exuberant. In contrast
‘Montparnasse’ was introspective, conveying the self-reflective doubt of
the poetry; Karth‰user’s elegant melodies possessed a nonchalant stillness,
the falling vocal glissando at the close spilling into a dark, exploratory
postlude suggestive of the beloved’s balloon-like eyes which float away
haphazardly in the air. Completing this trio of songs conjuring images of
Paris, the closing bars of the dreamy ‘HÙtel’ delicately evaporated like
the speaker’s cigarette smoke, ‘Je ne veux pas travailler je veux fumer’
(I do not want to work I want to smoke).

The seven songs which form ‘La courte paille’ (The short straw),
settings of Maurice CarÍme), were more whimsical and mischievous. The gentle
lullaby-rocking of ‘Sommeil’ (Sleep) swelled in intensity as Karth‰user
dramatically painted the dream landscape. ‘Quelle Aventure!’ (What
goings-on!) and ‘La Reine de coeur’ are fairy-tale absurdities, the first
depicting a flea in a carriage pulling along an elephant who is absentmindedly
sucking up a pot of jam, and the second presenting a Queen who waves an almond
blossom. Asti and Karth‰user were alert to the humorous chromaticisms and
dissonances which add musical piquancy to the nonsensical texts; and the
understated lyricism of the soprano’s undulating, asymmetrical melody in
‘La Reine’ were beautiful.

The juxtapositions of mood were clearly defined (often the performers made a
significant pause between the songs). After the playful diversions of the
sequence, the slow final song, ‘Lune d’Avril’ (April moon), re-established
a subdued stillness; in the descending vocal melody of the final lines
Karth‰user wonderfully captured the dreaminess of the imagery —
‘soleilleux de primevËres, /On a brisÈ tous les fusils …’ (sumlit with
primoses/ all the guns have been destroyed) — concluding with the repeated
chant, ‘Belle lune, lune d’avril, Lune’.

In ‘A sa guitare’ (To his guitar), Asti’s trembling textures and
overtones mimicked the poet-speaker’s beloved instrument, beneath a beautiful
placid vocal line. ‘Les chemins de l’amour’ (The paths of love) journeyed
into twilight worlds, an elusive pianissimo conjuring ‘the paths of
memory’. Here, the smooth, stepwise vocal line, ornamented with expressive
leaps, conversed with the piano’s entwining countermelodies and was supported
by a steadily moving piano bass, wonderfully displaying the simple profundity
of the composer’s means and message. Karth‰user and Asti left us no doubt of
their appreciation of Poulenc’s expressive nuances, and lured us into his
imaginative world.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Mozart: ‘Das Veilchen’, ‘An die Einsamkeit’, ‘Der
Zauberer’, ‘Abendempfindung’; Clara Schumann: Four Lieder to texts by
R¸ckert; Robert Schumann: Frauenliebe und —leben; Poulenc: Tel
jour, telle nuit
, ‘Voyage ‡ Paris’, ‘Montparnasse’, ‘HÙtel’,
La courte paille, ‘A sa guitare’ ‘Les chemins de l’amour’.

Sophie Karth‰user, soprano; Eugene Asti, piano. Wigmore Hall,
London, Monday 30th June 2014.

image_description=Sophie Karth‰user [Photo © Alvaro Yanez]
product_title=Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Sophie Karth‰user [Photo © Alvaro Yanez]