MUSIC / Thrills, not frills Heart of the matter: Adrian Jack on Margaret Price's recital of Ruckert songs at the Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture
Dame Margaret Price is one of Britain's top sopranos, yet, as a recitalist, there's something down- to-earth about her stage manner that you may find refreshing or disappointing, according to taste. While she's a very classy singer, she doesn't trade in glamour.

She sang her programme of Ruckert settings last Friday entirely from music, which inevitably robbed her performance of the ultimate degree of personal communication. But then, hers is a highly trained voice that colours everything she does with a commanding dignity and keeps her listeners at a certain distance. It's also recognisably Welsh - strong, clear and forceful, though she's too polished a singer to push it too far. It's not the kind of voice I would associate with Schumann, simply because it's too cool and too obviously artful, whereas the essence of Schumann is innocent passion.

Yet Schumann formed the backbone of her Wigmore Hall recital, since he set more of Ruckert than of any other poet, and more than any other composer. Price began with Widmung, one of his most ardent and personal songs -flattering as a gesture to the audience but hard to sing warmly at the start of an evening. Then came the delicate, ecstatic Schneeglockchen, which again didn't quite find its level, this time of bracing eagerness and delight. That sort of character is not really within Price's range, or rather, she can make a passable imitation without convincing us she lives those feelings; the girlish love of Volkslied was also too robust to be credible.

Carl Loewe actually knew Ruckert, but his settings seemed less personal than Schumann's, though they might come into focus if only we knew them better. Four of Loewe's 20 Ruckert settings triggered a spate of singerly cuteness, especially in the rushing enthusiasm of O susse Mutter and the breathless phrases of Kleiner Haushalt, a whimsical catalogue of small creatures in idyllic coexistence. As always, Price's words were absolutely clear, except when she deliberately modified a vowel sound on a high note to make it singable.

After the interval came less familiar Schumann songs, and finally Mahler's five Ruckert settings, whose spacious time-scale must test the nerve and imaginative endurance of even the most confident accompanist. Graham Johnson was on good form, and here the sheer sustaining power of Price's voice came into its own. The slowly-spun line of Ich atmet' einen linden Duft revealed the sheer reliability of Price's technique, though why did 'Duft' always sound like 'Dufts'? Um Mitternacht was broad, brave and solemn and the final Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen closed the evening with a sense of rapt withdrawal.