Classical: The voice of the 19th century

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The Independent Culture
IN WHAT sounds like a neo-classicist's manifesto, Goethe wrote that "only in limitation is mastery revealed, and law alone can give us freedom", so how he might have reacted to Hugo Wolf's ardently melodramatic setting of Mignon's famous "Kennst du das Land" is a matter for speculation. Like many other songs in Saturday evening's QEH recital, devoted to settings of lyrics from his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, it went far beyond the poet's narrow vision of the proper partnership of words and music.

Yet whatever the limits of his musical judgement, his famous vanity might well have been touched by the artistry shown in devotion to his texts, as performed by the soprano Solveig Kringelborn, the baritone Thomas Allen and the pianist Roger Vignoles, with Samuel West reading from the novel. If literature's function is to uncover hidden springs of feeling in its readers, then Schubert's impassioned musical response to "Wer nie sein Brot mit Tranen", or Schumann's to "Heiss mich nicht reden", must count as important documents in their composer's own biographies.

With Schumann, especially, it was a case of richness of accompaniment, splendidly realised by Vignoles in the spread chords of the harpist's songs. As for richness of harmony, that belonged not just to Schubert, Schumann and Wolf, but also to Liszt. In his versions of "ber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh" and "Freudvoll und leidvoll", the floating tonality that in his symphonic poems can sometimes lead to the impression of introductions to introductions, became a deftly controlled expressive tool of which even Goethe might have approved. But in many ways the laurels went to the settings by Carl Lowe, in his "Gutmann and Gutweib", the Bachian accompaniment brilliantly directed the extensive tale-telling to its punch line. And for singers, his version of "Erlkonig" must surely offer more dramatic breaks than Schubert's.

The second instalment of the South Bank's Goethe: Life, Love and Music weekend began with Beethoven's Egmont overture, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment agile and buoyant under Mark Elder's direction.

From pageantry, the mood changed to that of despair then consolation in the flowing lines of Brahm's Alto Rhapsody, the men of the Philharmonia Chorus quietly supporting the nobly rendered vocal line of the mezzo Jane Irwin.

With the tenor Justin Lavender the men returned towards the close of the second half, singing the "chorus mysticus" that sublimely ends Liszt's neglected A Faust Symphony, surely a necessary part of any celebration of Goethe's unique achievement. Thanks to Elder's complete grasp of the work both in flesh and spirit, its longueurs were scarcely noticed. What impressed were the quality of playing, fine woodwind solos in the Gretchen movement, and fierce, Mephistophelean unison strings in the last.

How revolutionary this piece must have seemed to its first listeners in the 1850s. To paraphrase Stravinsky on another subject, surely a solar plexus of 19th-century music.

Nicholas Williams