Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

A similar pattern followed at Wigmore Hall, where Watts and pianist Julius
Drake opened their recital with lieder by Richard Strauss and Alban Berg,
subsequently complementing the late-Romantic richness with the lighter
‘salon’ songs of CÈcile Chaminade. The latter seemed to introduce a more
relaxed directness into Watts’ expression which was sustained in the lovely
sequence of songs by Rachmaninov with closed the recital.

Watts performed the recital from memory – no unimpressive feat given the
range of styles and languages she confidently explored. There’s no doubt
that her soprano has ample power, fullness and shine and she launched
impassionedly into the opening series of lieder by Richard Strauss, but I
felt that she had a tendency to work too hard in these songs, striving too
often for climactic expressive and dynamic peaks which might have blossomed
with the natural effortlessness embodied in Strauss’ music – and which the
generous Wigmore Hall acoustic would complement and carry. At times I felt
a little overwhelmed by the sheer presence of the sound, and the swelling
volume occasionally – at the close of ‘Einerlei’ (Sameness) and ‘Rote
Rosen’ (Red roses), for example – affected Watts’ intonation, as did the
prevailing wide vibrato that she employed, particularly in the chromatic
twists of ‘Winterweihe’ (Winter consecration)

Drake’s accompaniments were more modulated: the opening of the
aforementioned ‘Einerlei’ was relaxed; the tension built convincingly
through ‘Rote Rosen’ which concluded with the piano’s delicately fading
dream-image; the dramatic narrative of ‘C‰cilie’ was persuasively shaped.
Watts was most convincing when she softened the tone, as in ‘Meinen Kinde’
(To my child), which had a lovely distanced gentleness through which we
could hear the subtle interplay of the piano’s inner voices. Similarly, the
simplicity of ‘Die Nacht’ (The night) sensitively brought forth its

Of the 88 songs that Alban Berg composed, 70 remained unpublished during
his lifetime. In 1928, however, he combined seven of his early songs –
written 20 years before when he had been a student of Arnold Schoenberg –
into a ‘cycle’ and published them in piano and orchestral versions. Bearing
a dedication to Berg’s wife, ‘My Helene’, the Sieben fr¸he Lieder do not
present a ‘narrative’ but do communicate a story of love through Straussian
outpourings which give musical embodiment to textual intimations of
ecstasy. They also show the influence of Debussy and, not surprisingly,
Berg’s then teacher, in their exploratory harmonic digressions.

Watts was more self-composed in this sequence, singing with greater
refinement and shaping the vocal lines with elegance and discernment. The
dreamy piano sequences and elaborations which open ‘Nacht’ seemed to signal
a change of tenor – and a more natural responsiveness to the texts: for
example, there was a slight ‘pressing’ quality in the first stanza, as
through the mists the valley was unveiled, building to the portentous, ‘Oh
gib acht!’ (Take heed!). Watts created a convincing protagonist in
‘Schilflied’ (Reed song) through the firm shapeliness of the vocal line,
while quietude at the start of ‘Die Nachtigall’ (The nightingale) built
skilfully through the bird’s murmured wanderings, towards the final
ecstatic proclamation, ‘Die Rosen aufgesprungen’ (the roses have sprung
up). ‘Traumgekrˆnt’ (Crowned with dreams) floated wistfully, while ‘Im
Zimmer’ (In the room) revealed the richness of Watts’ lower register, which
Drake complemented with his darkly plummeting final chord. An intoxicating
scent, a fin de siËcle sumptuousness, billowed through the closing

After the heady opulence of the first half of the recital, I was surprised,
and delighted, by the natural and uncomplicated manner with which Watts
inhabited the personae created by CÈcile Chaminade in her charmingly
innocent salon songs. Drake opened ‘Ronde d’amour’ (Love’s roundelay) in
boisterous fashion and Watts responded with coy intimations which blossomed
fulsomely at the close. The piano’s shimmering high chords embodied the
once strong sheen of the silver ring that the lover of ‘L’anneau d’argent’
wishes would return to her dulled love-token. Here Watts’ really made a
virtue of the voice’s reticence, a sweet but potent pause making us reflect
on the image of eternal sleep when the silver ring may shine still, on a
‘bony finger’. After the persuasive rhetoric of ‘Ma premiËre lettre’ (My
first letter), ‘Attente’ (Expectation) glittered with the lover’s yearning
anticipation, pushing forward through feverish visions, retreating
fragilely with disillusionment. Each song, however ‘slight’, told a story.
Drake’s lazy chords at the start of ‘La lune paresseuse’ (The idle moon)
presaged an intense declaration of anticipated passion and fulfilment, the
piano ringing with golden fervour at the close. Drake’s playful, precious
sparkling in ‘…crin’ (Jewel-case) – all ripples and rushes – captured the
barely suppressed ecstasy of the over-excited girl who has been captivated
by ‘mischievous eyes the colour of emeralds’ and ‘satin lips’, as Watts’
soprano flew upwards, light and free. ‘Villanelle’, which depicts a harvest
dance, romped with rustic vibrancy, joy and exuberance. This was a truly
lovely sequence of songs.

And there was more pleasure to come in the closing set of songs by
Rachmaninov. While I am not qualified to judge the authenticity of Watts’
Russian pronunciation, she did seem to inhabit the spirit of these songs,
communicating their sentiments with strength, directness and honesty. The
tranquillity of ‘Sireni’ (Lilacs), with its tender piano oscillations,
contrasted with the urgency of ‘Otryvok iz Musse’ (Fragment from Musset) in
which the torments of a troubled, lonely heart sank into a sad pathos, ‘O
loneliness, O poverty’, then raged forth in the piano’s desperate postlude.
The tender rhapsody of ‘Zdes’ khorosho’ (Here it’s so fine) was transformed
into ecstatic longing in ‘Ya zhdu tebya’ (I’ll wait for you). After the
lively dialogue of ‘One olvechali’ (They answered), ‘Ostrovok’ (The isle)
floated dreamily. The rapture which spills into uncontrollable desire in
‘Kakoe schast’ye’ (What happiness) brought the recital to a fittingly
euphoric end.

Well, not quite end – we had two encores. In the first, Rimsky-Korsakov’s
‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, Drake delicately suffused an oriental
perfume through Watts’ beautifully languorous melody, gently calming the
lingering fervour of Rachmaninov. The second, ‘Someone’s been sending me
Flowers’ by the American jazz singer-pianist Magrethe Blossom Dearie,
lowered the temperature still further, and – though charmingly sung – swept
aside the sincerity that had been established so powerfully in the second
half of the recital.

Claire Seymour

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Julius Drake (piano)

Richard Strauss:
‘Einerlei’ Op.69 No.3, ‘Meinem Kinde’ Op.37 No.3, ‘Rote Rosen’,
‘Liebeshymnus’ Op.32 No.3, ‘Winterweihe’ Op.48 No.4, ‘Die Nacht’ Op.10
No.3, ‘C‰cilie’ Op.27 No.2; Berg: Sieben fr¸he Lieder; CÈcile Chaminade: ‘Ronde d’amour’, ‘L’anneau d’argent’,
‘Ma premiËre lettre’, ‘Attente’ (Au pays de Provence), ‘La lune
paresseuse’, ‘Ecrin’, ‘Villanelle’; Rachmaninov: ‘Lilacs’
Op.21 No.5, ‘Fragment from Musset’ Op.21 No.6, ‘Dreams’ Op.38 No.5, ‘How
fair this spot’ Op.21 No.7, ‘I wait for thee’ Op.14 No.1, ‘They answered’
Op.21 No.4, ‘The isle’ Op.14 No.2, ‘What happiness!’ Op.34 No.12.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 7th October 2019.

product_title=Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Julius Drake (piano), Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Elizabeth Watts

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve