Classical: Take me to your Lieder

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The Independent Culture
Outside the German-speaking world, Goethe is best known for the music that his poetry and other writings inspired. Music was important to him, but as with most amateurs, his taste was conservative. He didn't even acknowledge the songs that Schubert sent him, and the settings that he admired had a simple melody repeated for each verse, such as the song by Spohr which Barbara Bonney sang as her first encore on Thursday - very mild compared with Schubert's shattering "Gretchen am Spinnrade", set to the same words.

Some time ago Bonney declared her wish to loosen up the format of Lieder recitals, but this was the first time she offered her audience a menu from which they were invited to make requests. This decision freed her from the agonies of programme-planning according to literary themes, and gave a potentially arduous evening a surprising lightness, even though she fixed her first and final groups - Schubert's and Wolf's versions of the four Mignon songs from the novel Wilhelm Meister.

The only trouble was that, in the first half at least, most of us couldn't hear what individual members of the audience requested, then had to search in the programme book for the relevant words - if, that is, we were able to identify the song. But during the interval someone told Miss Bonney that she ought to repeat the title of each song before she sang it, then give us time to find its text in the programme. Maybe she'd have preferred us to look at her rather than at the written words, but divided attention is one of the inevitable conflicts of song recitals. Anyway, Bonney also articulated her words more clearly in the second half.

After the opening Schubert group, the first request was for Verdi's setting, in Italian, of Gretchen's lovelorn song, "Perduta ho la pace" (the same which Spohr and Schubert set in German), strongly sung with complete conviction, though afterwards Bonney damned it with faint praise.

"Not a bad song," she said, "but now you know why Schubert is the master!" The point being, I suppose, that Verdi supplies no psychological development here, though with such a shapely and singable line, perhaps Goethe himself would have been less scornful.

Two settings by Liszt were also instantly recognisable as his, the first, "Freudvoll und leidvoll", graced by a telling but tactful piano part (nicely played by Malcolm Martineau) leaving the voice to trace arches of melody virtually unsupported.

This was faultlessly sung, and in the fervent longing for death of "Der du von dem Himmel bist" Bonney drew on her full dynamic range, building up to the overwhelming climax, then sustaining the peaceful close with perfect security.

Lighter songs she excelled in, too, pointing up the playful symbolism of a flower crushed beneath a girl's foot in Clara Schumann's "Das Veilchen" with particular relish. The tub-thumping tomboy in Beethoven's "Die Trommel geruhret" (from Egmont) was less appealing, though a special imaginative leap is required to empathise with a girl who wants to be a man in order to fight.

If, understandably, Bonney was less than convincing here, she showed in Wolf's Mignon Lieder that she can colour her naturally bright lyric soprano with considerable suppleness. Her Mignon still sounded plausibly girlish, yet her hushed evocation of an imagined paradise in "Kennst du das Land?" and her expression of wistfulness penetrated the depths of the character.

Adrian Jack