Brenda Rae’s superb debut at Wigmore Hall

In this recital, her debut at Wigmore Hall, Rae showed that her flawless
technique, thoughtful artistry, careful exploration of the text and
beautifully silky and sumptuous vocal tone can serve nineteenth-century
lieder and mÈlodie just as satisfyingly.

My Opera Today colleague, James Sohre, praising Rae’s performance


at Opera Philadelphia in September, described the soprano as a
‘Donizettian’s dream’: ‘Her attractive lyric instrument has good bite and
power, and she never needs to push to make her effects. Her intelligent
delivery of the text invests each phrase with truth and empathy, and her
unerring sense of line is a joy to hear. […] Her alluring tone is even from
top to bottom, and her stage demeanor exudes star quality.’

Those qualities, together with masterful contouring and control, and
discreet mastery by pianist Jonathan Ware, made Rae’s opening group of five
songs by Richard Strauss musical magic. Her voice crept in, mysterious,
mercurial, at the start of ‘Die Nacht’, conjuring Night herself who ‘steps
from the woods, slips softly from the trees’ (‘Aus dem Walde tritt die
Nacht, Aus dem B‰umen schleicht sie leise,’). Her sound production is
effortless, and while here she held back, drawing the listener into Night’s
journey as she extinguishes the lights of the world, the reserves of power
were plainly evident. And, some of this golden force was freed in the
sweeping lyricism of ‘Befreit’ (Released), in which Ware’s understated
mellifluousness carried the broad phrases forward. The pianist was
similarly inobtrusive but aware in ‘Muttert‰ndelei’ (Mother-talk), imbuing
the left-hand line with warmth to enrich the characterisation of the doting
mother and deepen the poem’s irony.

The performers’ musical intelligence made coherent the complex melodic
unfolding of ‘Schagende Herzen’ (Beating hearts), and Rae built compelling
towards the climactic anticipation of fulfilment – ‘Oh wenn er bei mir nur,
bei mir schon w‰r!’ (Ah! would he were with me, with me already!) – her
soprano gleaming with a thrilling excitement and a potent charge of
emotional energy. Strauss binds the song with onomatopoeic repetition,
‘Kling-klang schlug ihr das Herz’ (Pit-a-pat went her heart); here the
palpitations at the close were spirit-soaring and roof-raising. The piano’s
rippling accompaniment in the last of the group, ‘Fr¸hlingsgedr‰nge’
(Spring’s profusion), infused the song with a sense of restlessness and
Rae’s vocal line was rich and urgent; one could only marvel at the ease
with which she sculpted the broad lines, culminating in a silky pianissimo whisper which gleamed with a love of spring, and with
love itself.

The subtlety and nuance that Ware had demonstrated through the Strauss
group similarly brought insight and sensitivity to the sequence of songs by
Debussy that followed the interval, where Rae likewise explored the French
texts with great care and delicacy, wonderfully shaping the emotional
shifts. Confidently shaping the opening of ‘Rondel chinois’, Rae relished
the melismatic explorations, using vocal colour to draw the exotic images
in the text. She roved high and low in ‘Coquetterie posthume’ (Posthumous
flirtation), and the agile vocal acrobatics were anchored by the piano’s
repeating rhythmic motif and jazzy syncopations.

The first of Debussy’s settings of ‘Clair de lune’ floated with utmost
delicacy before ‘Pierrot’ brought us back down to earth with the rhythmic
bump of popular song. It was in ‘Apparition’, however, that Rae and Ware
were truly able to indulge in the quasi-operatic dimension of Debussy’s
song writing, Rae singing with increasing, and magnetic, power and focus,
and Ware highlighting the emotional peaks: ‘C’Ètait le jour bÈni de ton
premier baiser’ (It was the blessed day of your first kiss). The soprano’s
smooth shaping of the final, quiet, arching line was mesmerising
and Ware’s closing gesture, with left and right hands at the extremes of
the piano’s compass, opened up a scented vista filled with the falling
flowers dropped like snow by the fairy upon the sleeping child.

We had songs from earlier in the nineteenth-century too. The group of songs
by Fanny Mendelssohn highlighted Rae’s relaxed lyricism, nowhere more so
than in ‘Wanderlied’ (Song of travel), where Ware’s dancing triplets leapt
lightly, and ‘Bergeslust’ (Mountain rapture) which shone with the lustre of
heavenly light. ‘Wo kommst du her?’ was fresh and direct, leading my guest
to remark that Rae is ‘a very human performer’. There was always,
too, a strong sense of direction: Rae was quite restrained at the start of
‘Warum sind den die Rosen so blass?’ (Then why are all the roses so pale?),
but from the withdrawing thread of sound a strong melody inevitably and
compellingly emerged, while in ‘Die Furchtsame Tr‰ne’ (The timid tear) it
was Ware’s focused bass line that propelled the music forward through the
song’s tentative questionings.

In choosing ‘Wanderlied’ for the title of the first of the group heard
here, Fanny Mendelssohn seems to have positioned her song within a certain
type of lieder, and some commentators have noted an allusion to Schubert’s
‘Der Lindenbaum’ in one particular musical gesture. And, Rae and Ware ended
their recital with six songs by Schubert in which it was the simplicity and
economy of musical means, resulting in such cogent and commanding music,
which was most striking, and which cleansed the palette after the preceding
complexities. The crystalline transparency of ‘Von Ida’ was breath-taking,
the voice diminishing magically at the close to a suspended thread of
silver. Ware’s accompaniment to ‘Die verfehlte Stunde’ (The unsuccessful
hour) was similarly lucid, while the piano’s introduction to ‘Du bist die
Ruh’ was even and expressive, inviting in the lullaby, which Rae held back,
so as not to wake the sleeping child, but which shimmered with love and, in
the final verses, transcendence. Here was a huge emotional drama delineated
by the simplest of musical and vocal means.

It was the group of five songs by Franz Liszt, though, that made the
strongest impression on this listener. Despite the spare texture of ‘Es
muss ein Wunderbares sein’ (How wondrous it must be), Rae used diverse
vocal colours and timbres to progress with growing intensity and flowing
sweetness, then allowed her soprano to withdraw at the close, leaving us
with a consoling image of two souls united in love. ‘Bist du’ (Art thou)
pulsed with a lovely confidence and joy, enriched by the piano’s harmonic
delineations of the text’s listing of the analogies between the glories of
the beloved and of Nature, and culminating in glistening vocal
transfiguration: ‘Denn aus den Tiefen, den Tiefen des Seins/Kommst du!’
(for from the depths, the depths of being art thou!). There was a
complementary quiet expectancy at the close of ‘Wie singt die Lerche schˆn’
(How beautifully the lark sings), as the glow of the morning sun promised
to assuage the night’s pain and grief.

Two settings of Victor Hugo framed the group. Rae entered and departed
‘Comment, disaient-ils’ (How? They asked) with delicacy, emerging gently
from the piano’s rustling and allowing the final improvisatory flights to
slip into silence. ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ (Ah, while I sleep!) was more
overtly dramatic, the tempestuous dreams conjured by the leaping piano bass
and four-against-three rhythms gradually quelled, the darkness illuminated
by the starry vision of the beloved’s countenance. Who knew that a finely
graded crescendo and retreat could speak so tellingly and touchingly?

Liszt, who set text in five languages (German, French, English, Hungarian
and Italian) described his songs as ‘orphaned’, perhaps in the hope that
performers would bring them in from the cold margins of the repertory. Here
they seemed to have found their perfect home.

Claire Seymour

Brenda Rae (soprano), Jonathan Ware (piano)

Richard Strauss – ‘Die Nacht Op.10 No.3, ‘Befreit’ Op.39 No.4,
‘Muttert‰ndelei Op.43 No.2, ‘Schlagende Herzen’ Op.29 No.2,
‘Fr¸hlingsgedr‰nge’ Op.26 No.1; Fanny Mendelssohn – ‘Wanderlied’ Op.1 No.2,
‘Warum sind den die Rosen so blass’ Op.1 No.3, ‘Wo kommst du her?’, ‘Die
furchtsame Tr‰ne’, ‘Bergeslust’ Op.10 No.5; Franz Liszt – ‘Comment,
disaient-ils’ S276, ‘Es muss ein Wunderbares sein’ S314, ‘Bist du’ S277,
‘Wie singt die Lerche schˆn’ S312, ‘Oh! quand je dors’ S282; Claude Debussy
– ‘Rondel chinois’, ‘Coquetterie posthume’, ‘Clair de lune’, ‘Pierrot’,
‘Apparition’; Franz Schubert – ‘Vergebliche Liebe’ D177, ‘Aus ‘Diego
Manazares’ (Ilmerine)’ D458, ‘Von Ida’ D228, ‘Die verfehlte Stunde’ D409,
‘Du bist die Ruh’ D776, ‘Lied der Delphine’ D857 No.1.

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 23rd December 2018.

product_title=Brenda Rae (soprano) and Jonathan Ware (piano) at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Brenda Rae

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