Diana Damrau’s Richard Strauss Residency at the Barbican: The first two concerts

As the first recital amply demonstrated, there is a linear path – in German
lieder especially – that reaches its Romantic highpoint with Strauss. But
as Debussy himself said it’s also impossible to resist the overwhelming
power of his music and whether this is on the smallest or biggest of scales
(both of which we had here) Strauss’s music can seem almost
cinematographic. Debussy had in mind Ein Heldenleben when he
pointed to the “book of images” that Strauss’s music resembles – and it was
this very work which closed the second concert.

Diana Damrau, it should be said, is not one of those sopranos whose voice
easily resonates in a hall the size of the Barbican. The lack of power, and
sheer heft, the occasional unwillingness to project the voice more
dramatically, can sometimes make the sound she produces seem uncommonly
small. But the depth, and range, of her register is quite remarkable
despite this one drawback, and it’s certainly not one that is evident all
the time. The big notes might feel a little compressed, but her pianissimos are astonishing. As quiet as some of her singing can
be, the clarity of what she is singing is like a perfectly cut diamond. On
the other hand, the shimmering, almost silver-like tone, the ability to
convey youthfulness and warmth, and the unmannered phrasing, places her in
a different league to many lieder singers performing Strauss today. Those
floating high notes, the perfectly sustained legato and the ability to draw
you into the music is often quite magical. Here we have a singer much
closer to Lisa Della Casa, Lucia Popp and Margaret Price rather than, for
example, Jessye Norman – who in one of her last Wigmore Hall recitals sang
Strauss with such power you could feel the waves of sound washing over you.

Damrau opened her first recital with five songs by Liszt. Liszt’s canon of
lieder, and his place in the pantheon of great song composers, has never
seemed as assured, even today, as those written by Schubert, Wolf or even
Strauss. And yet, the line between Liszt, Wolf and Strauss – all of which
appeared in this first recital – couldn’t really be clearer. Although
perhaps not immediately obvious at first, this intuitive and clever
programming of Damrau’s opening concert pointed towards the climax of the
second. This was entirely about perspective, about the revolution in
Romanticism, and the Neo-German path of lieder and orchestration which went
beyond lyricism and opened up the gates towards drama and expressionism in
song, and the great Tone Poems that Strauss composed at the close of the
Nineteenth Century.

One of the dominant features of this recital was how much the piano
mirrored so much of the text – and it began with Liszt. Helmut Deutsch was
certainly much more than an accompanist in these opening Liszt songs –
though perhaps the somewhat symphonic nature of some of the piano writing,
allied with Damrau’s slightly more introspective singing, made him overly
dominant at times. In ‘Die Loreley’, for example, the sweeping, flowing –
even unrelenting – power of the Rhine was a little more turbulent and
overwhelming than one sometimes hears in this song. A stronger voice might
have made the piano writing seem less overloaded – but it was thrilling,
even if the magic shifted from the voice to Liszt’s piano scoring. But
despite this, Damrau often embraced the Homeric – in ‘Die Loreley’ the
luring of sailors to their deaths conjured up allusions of the Sirens in The Odyssey: she was at once seductive and devastating in her
ability to wreak torment as a temptress of fate. If the vocal strength
sometimes fell a bit short, there was never a shred of doubt that Damrau
was as fine a storyteller as we’re likely to hear in the concert hall

If there was death, these lieder embraced nature too. Schiller – never
perhaps the most luminous, or most inspired, of poets – paints a landscape
of innocence and boyhood in ‘Der Fischerknabe’. This opening song set the
trajectory of where Damrau was going with her Liszt lieder (which was
almost to become a microcosm of the two concerts themselves). Just as the
voice takes you inwards, the shifts in tonal and vocal colour fuse a
distinct narrative. Perhaps more suited to Damrau’s quicksilver, lighter
voice the shimmering movement of the water achieved greater reflection, and
more balance with Deutsch’s playing, than in the third song ‘Es war ein
Kˆnig in Thule’ which sometimes seemed to elude Damrau altogether. If
there’s a simplicity to Goethe’s text here, the depths to which Liszt has
gone are exceptionally more demanding on a singer. One never quite felt
that the nobility of this piece, or the darker, and more mysterious
palette, really quite suited her, or lay easily within her range. There’s
something Faustian about this song – perhaps better achieved here by
Deutsch’s lugubrious blend of darkness and weight – a distinct contrast to
the magnificent second song, ‘Die stille Wasserrose’ where Damrau had been
so successful in being so overtly feminine, youthful and – yes –
unabashedly erotic. Of all the Liszt songs this was the one which probably
hit the mark best of all – one where both Damrau and Deutsch achieved a
level of harmonic unity that they never quite managed in the other Liszt
lieder. The softness of the piano, the breath-taking beauty of the voice
was spellbinding.

There is no question that Damrau made a very persuasive argument for these
Liszt songs, even to the extent that one could argue that Liszt’s setting
of ‘Die stille Wasserrose’ sounded finer than the same song by Schumann.
One certainly felt at times that Damrau and Deutsch were not entirely in
unison – though in part this has much to do with Liszt himself who explores
significantly more drama in the piano – and Deutsch wasn’t shy in
displaying this. I didn’t necessarily find Damrau’s German precise or exact
– in fact, it often seemed to be quite the opposite. A tendency to meld
phrases into one another, clip words here and there, became a touch grating
at times. This was a noticeable problem in ‘Die Loreley’ where you often
expected (or should have expected) a more rounded sound and it was simply
missing. The penultimate lines of the fifth stanza, for example, ‘Er schaut
nicht der die Felsenrisse/Er schaut nur hinauf in die Hˆh’ were flexed to a
state where they were pretty much inaudible.

The Vier Lieder der Mignon by Hugo Wolf were largely magnificent,
however. Why Damrau should have been so strong, and compelling, in these
Wolf songs isn’t hard to understand. Her gift as a singer lies in her
ability to convince the listener that you are very much involved in the
psychological complexity behind a composer’s imaginative re-contextualising
of the words. In the case of Wolf, these Goethe settings felt incredibly
well articulated and almost operatic in their depth of interpretation. Put
simply, Damrau just drew you in like a viper does to its prey.

If Liszt had begun to rebalance the voice and the piano in his lieder, Wolf
takes it just that bit further – and with it explores the dramatic and
sensual power of a composer like Wagner, notably in Tristan, but
on a much smaller scale. You sometimes felt in the Liszt songs that Damrau
and Deutsch were splitting apart at times; in the Wolf lieder the effect
was quite the opposite. Here, if the piano moved one way with its motivic
material Damrau chose to follow it. But the obverse was also true. If in
the Liszt songs Deutsch had shown he was willing to go-it-alone with the
piano writing, his tendency in the Wolf lieder was to mirror more closely
with Damrau’s voice.

There is certainly something disturbing, almost pathological, about Wolf’s
characterisation of the Mignon setting. Helmut Deutsch instinctively sees
the piano part as gravitating towards menace; Damrau, if she didn’t convey
enough mystery or darkness in a song like Liszt’s ‘Die Loreley’, here
enshrines Mignon with a profound sense of grief and sorrow that is
manifestly deeply emotional. They were gripping to hear. Sometimes you got
the feeling of a profoundly unstable relationship happening on stage (in
the best possible way, it should be said). In ‘Kennst du das Land’, for
example, as Damrau sang out ‘Dahin! Dahin’ you felt that Deutsch was each
time on the brink of overwhelming and crushing her. Damrau would have none
of it and pushed back against this ruinous cruelty by soaring above the
keyboard. Wolf had sought to rebalance the relationship between his two
protagonists on stage – and this was achieved with mesmerising effect by
Damrau and Deutsch where neither singer nor pianist dominated the other. It
was all in beautiful, perfect symmetry.

The second half of Diana Damrau’s opening recital was devoted entirely to
the lieder of Richard Strauss. The chronological path of Damrau’s programme
of lieder – and in the case of the second concert the Vier Letze Lieder – in one sense diverts attention away from
Strauss’s singularity as a composer moving in a definite musical direction.
Strauss’s songs undoubtedly look back towards the Romanticism of Liszt and
Wolf – but they also embrace the Expressionism that was a hallmark of his
great single-act operas, Elektra and Salome, only for
Strauss to, again, look back to the Nineteenth Century in some of his final
works. His output can certainly seem uneven – but so is that of Liszt and
Wolf – but Strauss’s great gift was to turn a miniature piece of writing
into something that was hugely impressionistic and vivid. It rather
confirms the view of Strauss the composer, as described by Debussy, as one
who thought largely in images and pictures.

20190126_London©PMeisel(BRSO)1051 (1).jpg Diana Damrau. Photo credit: Peter Meisel.

If there is one thing that many of Strauss’s songs have in common – and
this, too, follows on from Liszt – it’s that the accompaniment can often
seem orchestral. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the song which ended
the recital – ‘C‰cilie’. A highpoint of this recital – perhaps the
highpoint – it was simply majestic. The demands placed on both singer and
pianist are huge, but here both Damrau and Deutsch had reached a state of
symbiosis that was inspired. The lushness they both brought to this song
was exceptional, but so was the artistry and refined technique. If you
detected agility in Deutsch’s quicksilver fingers it was because he was
identifying so closely with the movement of the text. Likewise, Damrau’s
breath control was exceptionally precise. If she had struggled in Liszt,
her Bavarian German was much more aesthetically pure in Bavarian Strauss.
Some of Strauss’s phrases in ‘C‰cilie’ can seem uncommonly long, almost
meandering, but perhaps none tax the singer more than the final one and to
Damrau’s credit her singing of it (“wenn du es w¸sstest, wenn du
es/w¸sstest, du lebest mit mir!) was a miracle of voice control and
pristine enunciation.

‘Einerlei’ had been the shortest of introductions to this Strauss part of
the recital – almost a bon-bon in its paradigm brevity – though it wasn’t
until the third song, ‘St‰ndchen’, that the depth of Damrau’s immersion
into Strauss became more apparent. There is far more urgency to the rhythms
here – Strauss’s writing for the voice often paralleling the text itself in
a far more descriptive and visual way. The impact that both Damrau and
Deutsch brought to this felt as if both were painting the music with
brushstrokes rather than simply singing or playing the notes – trees bent
in the breeze, a brook babbled. ‘M‰dchenblumen’, a set of four lieder in
which the singer is metaphorically transformed into a garden of flowers,
can sometimes seem a touch monochrome in performances. These are songs that
stretch the imagination, songs which ask a soprano to walk a tightrope
between simple sentimentality and deeper thinking. Strauss certainly
doesn’t make life easy for his singer launching into the first song
‘Kornblumen’ without any piano introduction whatsoever. If Damrau was
fractionally behind Deutsch here she more than made up for this by managing
the long, even tortuous, first phrase so well. ‘Mahnblumen’ fizzed, with
Deutsch especially displaying a lightness in the piano trills. With ‘Efeu’
the dynamic changes again. In a great performance of this song you want
singer and pianist to intertwine with one another, the phrasing to both
feel mysterious but borne of a single, irreplaceable event: “Denn sie
z‰hlen zu den seltnen/Blumen, die nur einmal bl¸hen”. It’s exactly what we
heard here, a moment of blossom that felt so very singular. With the final
song, ‘Wasserrose’, we get Strauss at his most impressionist. Damrau and
Deutsch rippled through the water, cadences expressed through small waves
of inflected tone in the voice, with long chords on the piano that pushed
Damrau to soar through them.

The Drei Lieder der Ophelia in some ways mirror the Wolf Mignon
songs which Damrau had sung earlier. Taxing they may be, but they also
impress with their dramatization of a character on the brink of madness and
paranoia. Overwhelming in their depiction of mortality, of a death in the
making, Damrau was often shattering. The huge, expansive leaps in the
voice, the lurching between moments of sanity and the impending doom-laden
hysteria and psychosis which will result in her impending drowning, they
were visceral – like a Goya painting. She never held back for a moment in
vocalising the existential crisis facing Ophelia. If the theme of water in
her earlier Strauss had focused on its natural beauty, its movement, here
the darkness in the voice, so often lacking in the Liszt, was elemental.

There were three encores – Liszt’s ‘es muss ein Wunderbares sein’, and
Strauss’s ‘Nichts’ and ‘Morgen’. In a sense, ‘Nichts’ came closest to
Damrau’s Bavarian roots – and the legato she displayed was exemplary.
‘Morgen’ was both fragile – rather as it should be – but also inhabited by
a glorious pathos in which Damrau scaled down her voice to make the song
seem almost endless.

Diana Damrau’s second concert as part of her Strauss residency consisted of
a single work, his Vier Letze Lieder accompanied by the Bavarian
Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. I think that even if you
accept that some of the works for voice and piano which Strauss
subsequently orchestrated (and which Damrau had included in her first
recital) – such as ‘C‰cilie’ and ‘Morgen’ – are superlative examples of
Strauss’s mastery as an orchestrator none quite rival the sheer scope, or
beauty, of the four songs which Strauss wrote in 1948. Few singers in my
experience of hearing this work in the concert hall seem to manage to make
all four songs work – though perhaps Felicity Lott has come closest. Damrau
didn’t quite achieve this either – and nor did you always really feel a
sense of deep and profound involvement in her singing of them.

This was one of those performances which did have moments of greatness –
but it was also one which leaned heavily the other way. ‘Fr¸hling’, so
often the song which causes sopranos the most problems, was extremely fine
mainly because Damrau’s more lyrical voice is so ideal for it. The sense
that this music had momentum was inescapable – though Jansons had set a
very fleet tempo to begin with in the strings and woodwind which Damrau was
in part forced to follow. There was undeniable sweep to the voice, so when
she soared above the orchestra at the end of the first stanza (‘von deinem
Duft und Vogelsang’) the purity of her sound became more apparent.
Likewise, there was little effort required to sustain that wonderfully
ethereal extended note on “Gegenwart” which closes the song. The more
autumnal mood of ‘September’ proved elusive for Damrau, not helped by a
lack of poise, with much of the song’s quivering inflections coming from
the orchestra’s woodwind and horns – indeed the first horn’s wonderfully
played solo in the final bars seemed to dramatize Hesse’s solemn, hymnal
text so much more exquisitely.

‘Beim Schlafengehen’, as in so many performances of these songs, was where
this performance might have proved uneven – but it shifted into something
rather special. The expectation that the voice might be rather light was
misplaced mainly because Damrau has such an innate ability to think beyond
the words themselves. There was considerable art on display here, as well
as a beautiful technique. As with so much of her Strauss and the Wolf in
her first recital, what made ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ so deeply impressive was
the emotional context in which she placed this Hesse poem. The elegant way
in which she managed the hugely long phrases, the impeccable pronunciation
and the (mostly) unbroken lines were flawless. If she didn’t quite manage
to sustain the final line “Tief und tausendfach zu leben” in a single
breath without breaking the phrase at “zu” (but almost no soprano is able
to do this) we were compensated with a glowingly lengthened final note on
“leben” that was thrilling (and all too often abbreviated in some

‘Im Abendrot’ worked too, largely because Damrau is a singer who
understands that what Strauss what trying to convey in this final song is
the simplicity of love. Again, the phrasing was impeccable – the voice lush
enough against the orchestral backdrop but able to ride effortlessly above
it, and at times merge into it. It was a magnificent ending to a
performance that had unevenness, but moments of inspiration which showed
such depth and beauty.

I have often found Mariss Jansons to be an uneven conductor – even a rather
wilful one – but his Richard Strauss is exceptional. If his accompaniment
to the Strauss songs had been almost minimalist, but imbued with a sense of
wonderful clarity, it came as no surprise that his performance of Ein Heldenleben should display a similar sense of brilliance. No
matter how you look at this performance – from the point of view of the
conducting, the interpretation or the playing – it was magnificent. The
virtuosity of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is in many ways in a
class of its own – at a famous, and utterly memorable, performance of Ein Heldenleben given at the Proms in 2004 under Jansons, the
orchestra played on a blacked-out stage much of the Battle Scene when the
lights in the hall malfunctioned. No such problem happened during this
Barbican concert but the brilliance of the orchestra, that sumptuous sound,
the expressive range of its principals leaves an unforgettable impression
on the listener.

Ein Heldenleben
can sometimes seem an over-long and densely orchestrated work but Jansons
has a gift for making this masterpiece seem neither. The clarity he brings
to it is quite remarkable, in fact. Rarely have I heard the harps play with
such definition in this piece – and the characterisation he asks of the
woodwind is stunning. Whole desks of flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons
are voiced – not simply played as instruments. Strauss is so specific in
what he demands of his players it often requires an exceptional orchestra
to bring if off and so you get the shriek of a piccolo, the snake-like hiss
of a cymbal or the arrogance of some of the lower brass. The solo horn –
played here by Eric Terwilliger – was dazzling, with breath control that
was effortless. That beautiful lower string sound, the very foundation of
this orchestra on which everything else is built, is like crushed velvet.
That searing love music which Strauss writes for ‘Der Helden Friedenswerke’
and ‘Der Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung’ has rarely sounded so intense or
voluptuous when played by the Bavarian strings, with soaring horns playing
meltingly above them. Dynamics are so accurate that you can imagine every
detail of this vast score in your mind – and Jansons’s control over the
orchestra is absolute. Radoslaw Szluc’s solo violin was so beguiling you
couldn’t but be entirely hypnotised by the playing.

One anomaly with Janson’s performances of Ein Heldenleben – and
it’s been one ever since I can remember him conducting this work – is the
insertion of two unmarked timpani strokes in Strauss’s score. The first (in
my ancient Leuckart/Leipzig edition of the score) occurs just before M.93
at the Im Zeitmass marking and the second in the very final bars
of the work when the timpani should fade from a ff to a p
. I can’t think of another conductor – going as far back as Toscanini and
Rodzinski in the 1940s – who does this. I think most listeners scarcely
notice it – and in a performance as exceptional as this one was one can
overlook this intervention.

These two concerts were largely events of some stature, placing Strauss’s
vocal works in a wider historical perspective. There were flaws here and
there, but the quality of the singing and, in the second concert, the
brilliance of the Bavarian orchestra made for two events that were entirely
memorable. Diana Damrau will return to the Barbican in March to complete
this Strauss series when she will sing the closing scene fromCapriccio and give the world premiere of a new work, The Hidden Place, by Iain Bell.

Marc Bridle

Diana Damrau (soprano) and Helmut Deutsch (piano)

Franz Liszt: ‘Der Fischerknabe’, ‘Die stille Wasserrose’, ‘Es war ein Kˆnig
in Thule’, ‘Ihr Glocken von Marling’, ‘Die Loreley’; Hugo Wolf: Vier Lieder der Mignon; Richard Strauss: ‘Einerlei’, ‘Meinem
Kinde’, ‘St‰ndchen’, ‘M‰dchenblumen’, Drei Lieder der Ophelia,
‘Der Rosenband’, ‘Wiegenlied’, ‘C‰cilie’

16th January 2019, Barbican Hall, London

Diana Damrau (soprano), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons

Richard Strauss: Vier Letze Lieder, Ein Heldenleben

26th January 2019, Barbican Hall, London

image_description= Diana Damrau’s Richard Strauss Residency at the Barbican
product_by=A review by Marc Bridle
product_id=Above: Diana Damrau and Helmut Deutch

Photo credit: Peter Meisel