IN RECITAL Italian Songbook; Margaret Price; International Song Competition Wigmore Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The 46 little songs of Hugo Wolf's Italian Songbook make a perfect recital programme for two singers, male and female, with a well-equipped pianist - for the piano part is often difficult. Wolf didn't specify the gender for each song, though it's often obvious, and performers always have fun choosing their own order with an ear for contrast and tit-for- tat. They can also strain too hard for a scenario of love-games which isn't there - after all, the collection is just that, not a cycle in which the subject matter is structured.

On Saturday night the soprano Felicity Lott had the lion's share of the lighter songs, as sopranos usually do, while the baritone Olaf Bar took more of the serious ones. So far, so true to stereotype - the lyrics, after all, are popular and feisty, not profound. But Wolf's music dresses them nobly without hampering their epigrammatic wit, and "Verschling' der Abgrund", in which Lott spat venom against all her real nature, packs into little more than a minute the dramatic fury of a scene that Wagner's Fricka or Brunnhilde would take several to achieve.

Olaf Bar seemed in particularly good voice, sumptuous and weighty, perfectly beautiful in "Wie viele Zeit verlor ich", but sharp in attack for the stabs of irony and anger elsewhere. Lott and Bar made an appealing couple, lightly hinting at reactions to each other with appropriate facial expressions, but not making a meal of it. But the success of the evening owed a lot to Malcolm Martineau's prompt contribution at the piano, and he had the final burst of limelight in the whirlwind coda of "Ich hab in Penna".

A Dame she may be, but there's no side to Margaret Price. At her Monday night recital with Thomas Dewey in aid of Crusaid, she came on to the platform like a friendly neighbour about to potter in her garden, specs propped on the end of her nose, music stand at the ready. She chose a programme of Schubert songs about night, but switched to less reflective subjects for two of her encores, singing "Die Forelle" beautifully and lighting up "Liebhaber in alle Gestalten" with great spirit. They were also in tune, which many of the slower, sustained songs in the main part of the evening were not. The opening of "An die untergehende Sonne" was awfully approximate, and passages in other songs were consistently flat, despite a steady stream of intensely gorgeous tone. Perhaps if Dewey had supported a little more solidly, "Der Winterabend" would not have felt such hard work - a pianist's tact is sometimes a disservice. Perhaps, too, if Price had transposed certain songs down a semitone, she might have negotiated them more easily. But I wonder.

Margaret Price is one of the jury, which also includes the pianists Graham Johnson and Rudolf Jansen, and singers Peter Schreier and Elisabeth Soderstrom, of the first Wigmore Hall International Song Competition being held this week. It's unlikely, yet, to match the excitement of Cardiff Singer of the World. Of the 36 competing singers, I sampled 12 give short recitals in the preliminaries and would predict possible careers for six, which isn't bad going, though as far as their biographies are reliable indications, they seem pretty well launched already. Only one - it would be invidious to mention his name at this stage - seemed a really rounded singer, while the others were promising and anything might happen to them. There's also a pianist's prize, and one I heard (who partnered two singers) gave the sort of confident support needed. Most of the others were, at best, uninspired and, at worst, mousy. More news after the finals tomorrow.