Classical Review: Performers do justice to a master of song

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Landscape into Song: three song recitals

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

"Landscape into Song" the weeklong series of Schubert songs and chamber music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, began last Monday evening with Die schone Mullerin. The series director, Roger Vignoles, called the cycle a pastoral idyll, but enacted, not merely sung, by the baritone Wolfgang Holzmair with the pianist Imogen Cooper, the tale of blighted innocence took on the character of deep tragedy. As Holzmair and Cooper acknowledged the applause as solemnly as witnesses at a funeral, we almost felt we shouldn't be clapping, but drag ourselves into the night, shamed that a young man could suffer so cruelly.

As the 20 songs moved from optimism to bitter disillusion, no one could have asked for more attentive, detailed expressions nor more complete harmony of feeling between singer and pianist. In sensitivity, Cooper surpassed herself. During some of her brief piano introductions Holzmair prepared his mood with body language seemingly designed to instruct the audience - a jarring touch - and wasn't his naive young man too artful? The voice was attractively vulnerable, with a hint of huskiness, but Holzmair's manner was just a bit narcissistic.

Excepting "Erlkonig", the theme of landscape came up with no Schubert songs of comparable quality to Die schone Mullerin in Manfred Goerne's programme on Wednesday. For the pianist, "Erlkonig" puts truth before beauty - or the player's comfort - and Andreas Haefliger piled on the coals regardless. Goerne drew the three characters of child, molester, and unheeding father by distinct changes of vocal quality which were discreet enough to safeguard the music's nobility.

Goerne isn't a singer to watch, for he sways about and rolls his eyes as if every lyric were a horror story, but the sound is always lovely, even if the words aren't always ideally clear. After the interval, he moved on to Wolf's settings of Murike. In "Auf ein altes Bild", the landscape is a painting of the Virgin and baby Jesus, with a wood in the background, hinting at the Cross, which the pianist suggests with a biting, momentary dissonance. The tiny masterpiece seems to give women singers, for some reason, enormous trouble, because they find it hard to keep a slow, quiet and high-pitched vocal line steady and in tune. Goerne did it perfectly. At the other end of the expressive spectrum, the supernatural terror of "Der Feuerreiter", a drama both brief and shattering, had Haefliger unleashing the full fury of Wolf's tremendous piano part with splendid recklessness. He and Goerne make an exciting partnership.

Goerne found himself back at the QEH on Friday evening, replacing Andreas Schmidt, who had flu, in Schubert's Schwanengesang. This time he was joined by the pianist Graham Johnson, who was fastidious and ultra-considerate. Which made for a rather reserved depiction of Nature's wildest aspect in "Aufenthalt", and a slightly careful "Abschied". Yet Johnson did many beautiful things; his tonal shading in the link to the second verse of "Das Fischermadchen" was deliciously melting.

Goerne was every bit Johnson's match in delicate colouring. In "Ihr Bild", he seemed to be frozen in a trance, as if singing to himself, and in "Der Doppelganger", he grew steadily from eerie stillness to chilling anguish. For the audience, grateful to have disappointment averted, and rewarded with lovely singing, Goerne was the hero of the moment.

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