Dawn Upshaw / Emanuel Ax, Barbican Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

It is something of a paradox than Chopin could make the piano sing like few others in musical history but on the evidence his meagre collection of songs could not unlock that effortless facility in the human voice.

Pianistic bel canto, yes; vocal, no. Listening to the first half of this oddly schizophrenic recital from Dawn Upshaw and Emanuel Ax the puzzlement grew with each successive song: seven of them, to be precise, each from the collection labelled “Polish” (wasn’t everything?) and none especially grateful for the soprano voice.

Upshaw and Ax are taking this recital on the road to celebrate the 200th anniversaries of Chopin and Schumann but I can only guess that preparation time was foreshortened in some way because the normally super-communicative Upshaw was buried in her copy sounding decidedly uneasy about both the language and the vocal inflections. Even Polish-born Ax, for whom this music is a birth-right, was somewhat tentative and untidy.

But what was going on with Upshaw? One of my favourite artists seemed to be in some vocal distress with phrases poorly sustained, intervals uncertain, and much chesting of the lower register. To be frank, they sounded like sight-readings, although the last two songs – “Faded and Gone”, possessed of a folksy ache, and “My Darling”, a song at last displaying Chopin’s pianistic rapture – seemed to bring the voice and personality into focus. Right now they sound closer to speech than song – or maybe that’s how Upshaw and Ax feel them. At any rate, they need to be more thoroughly digested.

And I would suggest that Stephen Prutsman’s setting of Billy Collins poems Piano Lessons (replacing a previously announced Golijov piece) makes for an odd interpolation into the evening. Funny on the page but hopelessly over-cooked in their musical context the problem here was the separation and dislocation of words killing most of the jokes before their pay-off.

The pay-off of this recital was Upshaw’s Schumann. Suddenly a very different singer was on the platform – involved, engaged, the feeling at last dictating the sound. The child in Upshaw is always full of wonder and when she tells a story you hang on every word. “Mignon’s Song” was particularly fine, not one phrase or emotion ringing false, and with “Dedication” her big hearted delivery filled the hall and stilled it, the central line of poetry “You are repose, you are peace” finding and holding an inwardness that had been conspicuously lacking earlier.