Anne Schwanewilms sings Schreker, Schubert, Liszt and Korngold

Indeed, it was very much a recital of two distinct halves. Franz Schreker’s 5 Lieder, Op.3, which opened the evening, are songs about personal
loss and grief (“Ich sitze trauernd ein Grab zu h¸ten”) and, frankly, Ms
Schwanewilms gave a performance of them that was too tentative for my
taste. It all felt rather arid. There were moments, few and far between,
where Ms Schwanewilms felt able to colour her voice – at the end of the
second song, Im Lenz, for example, but mostly she didn’t feel
vulnerable enough. There are elements of innocence that ripple through the
underbelly of these texts, but I was left with the impression she was
simply uncomfortable in these songs, at least on this occasion. Das Gl¸ck was riddled with hazy phrasing, particularly at the end
of stanzas. In Umsonst her diction was simply unclear. It was not
the most promising beginning.

Schubert, which ended the first half and began the second, didn’t fare much
better. The three Ellens Ges‰nge were variable – even an Ave Maria! in which her German felt unusually demotic, understated
and lacking in emotional involvement. There’s no denying the brilliance
with which she is able to float a phrase or note – but it was also combined
with some less than ideal diction. In Ellens Ges‰nge III, for
example, the line “Soll mein Gebet zu dir hinwehen” ended in a mush of
flawed intonation and incomprehension. An interval, however, makes all the
difference because the Schubert that she sang in the second half was at a
somewhat different level of inspiration. Schwestergruss was both
fleet and incisive with much more pointed phrasing and detail – it was
little short of brilliant in conveying the sense of gothic horror that
cascades through much of it. Likewise, Der Tod und Das M‰dchen had
rhythmic precision and a mounting sense of terror. Whereas much of the
singing in the first half of the recital had been plagued by a lack of
discipline, here it was very detailed and precise: the staccato
passagework, the observation of the anacrusis, the beautifully shaped piano markings, the precision of the fermata which certainly had
its mark stamped firmly upon it.

The three Wilhelm Tell songs by Liszt, perhaps because they draw
on elements of musical harmony, nature and human sexuality more than they
do on death and gothic horror, found both singer and pianist on happier
terrain. There is a thrilling virtuosity to these songs which is almost the
complete antithesis of the folk-like simplicity suggested in their
narrative, though these songs unquestionably demand an emotional and
expressive range that is very high. That was amply met in this wonderful
performance of them. The pianist, Charles Spencer, revelled in the music of
the first song, Der Fischerknabe, making semiquavers of water out
of his piano keys, whilst Ms Schwanewilms evoked the calls of alpine horns
through her ringing high notes. If her Schreker and Schubert had been
devoid of inner-meaning and had only shallow hints of emotional depth, her
Liszt was sultry and inflamed with the danger of knowing sexuality. She
took risks. The third song, Der Alpenj‰ger was a tour de force: chords had colossal weight, marcato and staccato
octaves were wrenched out with monumental force, the sustained pedal gave
weight. The piano had almost orchestral power. The voice, for the first
time, simply enmeshed the acoustics of the hall in a fireball of glorious
sound. Mr Spencer, who had sounded so understated in the Schubert songs,
was here craggy and breath-taking in his use of pianistic colour.

The Korngold songs which finished the programme were just as inspired. The Opus 22 trilogy performed here were written just after Korngold
had completed his magnificent opera, Wunder der Heilane – and you
can hear the influences of that opera at work in the chromatic scales,
intensely lyrical melodies and vocal glissandi. The songs were dashed off
with a breath-taking ease and in part it’s easy to see why they were so
well done given this singer’s special relationship to the music of Richard
Strauss, which is in part typical of how Korngold treats the voice here
with its soaring lines. It was fitting, therefore, that Ms Schwanewilms’
only encore should be by Strauss – an effervescent and infectious
performance of Strauss’ Op 49 no 8, Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen.

Marc Bridle

Anne Schwanewilms (soprano), Charles Spencer (piano)

Franz Schreker – 5 Lieder Op.3; Schubert – Ellens Gesang I D837, Ellens
Gesang II D838, Ellens Gesang III (Ave Maria) D839, Die junge Nonne D828,
Schwestergruss D762, Der Tod und das M‰dchen D531; Liszt – Lieder aus
Schillers Wilhelm Tell S292 (No.1 Der Fischerknabe, No.2 Der Hirt,
No.3 Der Alpenj‰ger; Korngold – Was du mir bist? Op.22 No.1, Mit Dir zu
schweigen Op.22 No.2, Welt ist stille eingeschlafen Op.22 No.3

Wigmore Hall, London; 2nd October, 2017.

image_description=Anne Schwanewilms and Charles Spencer at the Wigmore Hall
product_title=Anne Schwanewilms and Charles Spencer at the Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id= Above: Anne Schwanewilms

Photo credit: Javier del Real