Andras Schiff/Juliane Banse, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

If Mendelssohn’s centenary has exposed his deficiencies as a choral composer and symphonist, it has also highlighted his wonderful and underrated gift as a song composer.

Not the piano ‘songs without words’, which are drawing-room stuff, but the songs he wrote for piano accompaniment. For as a composer of Lieder, he was up there with Schubert. He once famously declared that notes were for him more precisely expressive than words, but when he put the two together the result could be magical.

And the moment soprano Juliane Banse launched into five of his best-loved songs, with pianist Andras Schiff as her accompanist, this point was forcefully made. ‘The autumn wind shakes the trees’ was the opening image of ‘Reiselied’ (‘Song of travel’), and singer and piano fairly hurtled along. Banse’s sound seemed at first too big for the Wigmore’s subtle acoustic, but Schiff’s accompaniment was matchingly powerful; moving on to the more wistful version of ‘Suleika’, the pair drew us irresistibly into Schumann’s variegated emotional world. As a specialist in avant-garde experimentalism, Banse is well used to stretching her effects, and did so here with total assurance. After the aphoristic ‘Frage’ (‘Question’) came the unnervingly ambiguous ‘Neue Liebe’ (‘New Love’) with its suddenly glacial final verse, and with every mood-shift Banse’s manner was a seamless extension of her sound.

If the Mahler songs which came next were deftly done, the Schumann cycle which followed them was the evening’s searing climax. Mary Queen of Scots wrote five poems of the most unbearable poignancy as she pleaded for her life, then waited for the axe: Schumann set them to music while in his asylum, and they reflect the most terrible congruence between his own emotional state and that of his subject. The music is pared down to bleak open chords and phrases of the starkest simplicity; Banse found exactly the right majestic pathos to communicate the text’s dark material. Concluding their recital with Schumann’s song-cycle ‘Frauenliebe und leben’, she and Schiff dealt brilliantly with the final coup de theatre in which the opening song is posthumously recalled.

But since this concert was part of Schiff’s ‘Songs with and without words’ series - and since he himself is the Wigmore’s biggest crowd-puller - he also got to play in his own right: Schumann’s ‘Papillons’ seldom comes across so vividly.