Edinburgh Festival SCHUBERT RECITALS Usher Hall

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In retrospect, it was probably a mistake for the distinguished tenor Peter Schreier to go ahead with his Edinburgh Festival recitals. With Schubert's three song cycles ahead of him, and what was apparently a cold, he gambled on the voice clearing during the five days spanned by the performances. He was correct, as it turned out; it lost its huskiness, but never returned to normal as an expressive instrument. Even in Schwanengesang you sensed that he was playing safe.

Die schone Mullerin, on the other hand, was an uncomfortable experience. As the cycle progressed, high notes turned into yelps and soft tone got lost in the fog. The accompanist, Andrs Schiff, normally a fine Schubert pianist, overcompensated and sounded nervous and bombastic. Only with the end in sight did they relax a little and capture some of the wryness of "Des Baches Wiegenlied".

It was an enormous relief to find Schreier's voice so much better for Winterreise. Clearly, he now knew he could stay the course with a little careful conservation, and the cry of lament at the close of "Gefrorne Tranen" was moving, the breathless whisper and solemn hymnody of "Der Wegweiser" truly lifelike. Schiff responded, his crisp rhythmicality lifting "Die Post" into vibrant action.

But even now, there was not enough contrast of colour, not enough sensuality. Neither the tone nor the intonation was fully under control, and details became a bit random; if the sorrowful melismas of "Wasserflut" were in tune, it was only by paying the price of a tight and jaundiced timbre. Again, the last song was the best. Schreier made a virtue of his own dryness to evoke the bleak "Leiermann", with Schiff superbly cold and laconic.

There were some good moments in the third concert, too, but problems persisted. While the Schwanengesang set is an unsatisfactory collection in many ways, it produced moments of wit and intimacy as well as some charmingly turned ornaments. The voice was now equal to an occasional real climax; the cry of horror in "Der Doppelganger" was chilling. Schreier also sang a group of famous Goethe songs, but the poignancy of "Erster Verlust" was beyond him. It was a pity; this much-loved artist made no new friends, but maybe he lost no old ones either.

Each of the three performances was followed, later in the evening, by a piano sonata, played by Schiff with utter sublimity. In the dark hall, with a solitary light on the piano, these distillations of abstract songfulness shone coolly, the pianist's crispness transformed into a kind of spiritual austerity. The first movement of the G major, D 894, crept pensively in like the tide. The A major, D 959, was full of a heavenly grazioso and a sweet easefulness, the variations of the finale growing effortlessly. In the great B flat Sonata, D 960, this grace had turned into a noble tranquillity, the lyricism now distilled over and over until it seemed as pure as snow.