Susan Bullock/Malcolm Martineau, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Listening to Susan Bullock scent the fragrance and coquettish pleasure of early Strauss at the start of her Wigmore Hall recital, it was hard to credit that this talented and still underrated British singer had recently scored a notable triumph in Germany as the axe-wielding, mother-hacking, hell-bent-on-revenge Strauss heroine Elektra.

But that's the thing about Bullock - she uses her largish voice with sensitivity and intelligence, reining in its muscularity but making the most of the vibrancy to colour, to brighten, to excite the musical line. The full force of it is only summoned on demand. And even then it's more the strength of her personality that pins you to the back of your seat.

She did that effectively enough in Benjamin Britten's highly individual settings of Alexander Pushkin's strangest and most elemental poems, The Poet's Echo. The six poems were cast with Mstislav Rostropovich's wife Galina Vishnevskaya's voice in mind. More than in mind, actually - the plangency of her sound is all but written into the music. Vocally speaking, Bullock has something of her temperament and Slavic cast. And she and her pianist Malcolm Martineau really hit upon something disturbing in the insomniac final poem, where answers never come in the long silent night. That was all about atmosphere and theatricality. It has always been in Bullock's gift to find both in abundance.

But it's the warmth of her voice and personality that have made her, in the past, such a memorable Butterfly and Isolde. The latter was, of course, brought home forcefully in her performance of Wagner's Wesendonk Lieder - the opera's closest relation. Long, yearning phrases, and the promise of ecstasy with the revelation of "heilige Natur!" at the climax of the second poem, "Stehe still!", were early signs. Then came "In Treibhaus", with the ache of separation and alienation beautifully conveyed. From there it was barely a stretch to the rapture of "Traume", but as those dreams died Bullock already had us hearing the "Liebestod".

So, a veritable hothouse of a programme, climaxed by Debussy's Proses lyriques - awful poems penned by the composer himself where sound has altogether more relevance than sense. Bullock, whose voice seems to warm to French sensibilities, made quite a meal of them, so one was grateful for the freshness and plain-speaking of five Ned Rorem songs. His setting of Tennyson's "Now sleeps the crimson petal" is wonderfully rich and sits well with the terseness of Whitman's "O you whom I often and silently come" - the flip sides of desire.

Strauss's "Zueignung" ("Ded- ication"), the ultimate postscript of love fervently requited, was an almost inevitable encore, its climactic high A rattling the Wigmore fittings - and just when we thought we were out of the hothouse, Bullock gave us "Summertime". Phew.

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