MUSIC / Perpetual motion: Edward Seckerson on the International Festival of Song

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The Independent Culture
A new Wigmore Hall season, the launch of an International Festival of Song. But not so much an opening concert, more an exclusive house party, the kind for which invitations come gilt-edged. Just imagine: a Viennese stately home, late last century. Guests waltz from room to room, picking up snatches of everybody's business but their own; an eternal dance of love and desire in triple time. That's the effect of Brahms's rarely heard Liebeslieder Walzer for 'Piano Duet (with solo and mixed voices ad libitum)'. More often than not, the Piano Duet comes without the voices. But this is a Festival of Song in association with IMG Artists, and that means luxury casting: Barbara Bonney, Anne Sofie von Otter, Kurt Streit and Olaf Bar. Helmut Deutsch and Bengt Forsberg were the pianists.

Quite a team - and a well-integrated, listening team, whether duo, trio, quartet, or solo. Song for song, this first set of Liebeslieder Walzer doesn't throw up anything of real quality, save perhaps the bitter-sweet 'Wohl schon bewandt' which Von Otter took quietly into the shadows and made real. But it's the perpetual motion, the intoxicating allure of the waltz that spirits you from one fancy to the next. Eighteen songs merge into one and the room somehow keeps turning.

Later came the Neue Liebeslieder Walzer for 'Solo and mixed voices and Piano Duet'. Note the shift in Brahms's priorities. Voice and words come more strongly into focus here with the approach of twilight; individuals step out of the frame. Bonney got to show off that bright-eyed charmer of a voice, Streit's debonair lyric tenor might have stepped straight from the stage of the Theater an der Wien (how effectively he and Bonney glazed the top line of the ensembles), Von Otter and Bar animated words in such a way as to have you finally contemplating the poems. In the last of them, Goethe inspires Brahms to a lofty postlude. As he bids the muses be silent, so too is the piano, leaving voices alone to contemplate the ravishing final cadence. That one stanza elevates and enriches Brahms's harmony in an extraordinary way, as if he were suddenly moving string voices into the picture. This particular close-harmony group could go far should they tire of going it alone.

And then there were two. By Tuesday night, Olaf Bar had found a new partner in Dawn Upshaw - and she'd heard it all before. Hugo Wolf's Italian Songbook chronicles the ups and downs of every couple for whom true love is a very mixed blessing indeed. You smile at the frivolities, the flirtations, the tiffs, the squabbles, and then Wolf touches something deep inside you. Upshaw and Bar are the kind of singers who can carry the voice on the import of the words and the spirit. The song's the thing. Bar may have lost some of his finesse, his honeyed legato, and Upshaw is hardly 'the voice beautiful'. But the artistry. I can see her now: the maiden who'd always craved the love of a musician, hanging on to every note of his halting overture. Words ceased; Upshaw's face said it all.

The Festival continues to 27 Sept: Wigmore Hall, London W1 (Booking: 071-935 2141)