Although it was only an hour in length, German mezzo-soprano Petra Lang's lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall was so invigorating from first to last that it felt like a truly complete experience.
Juxtaposing the eight songs of Robert Schumann's cycle Frauenliebe und -leben with Lieder by Richard Strauss, the concert was a fascinating comparison between the nature of the German art song in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Completed in 1840, Schumann's Op. 40 is his only collection of songs to take a literally cyclical form, the piano returning (without contribution from the singer) to the theme of the opening song at the end of the group. Its portrait of 'a woman's love and life', set to poetry by Adelbert von Chamisso, depicts a telling progression from na´ve romance to mature, sensual love, and encompasses the attendant fears and sorrows of an intense relationship.
The cycle finds Schumann in a surprisingly relaxed mood, compositionally: he eschews the chromatic harmonies, enharmonic shifts and turbulent accompaniment figures of many of his other famous songs.
Lang and her accompanist Charles Spencer arrived onstage fully warmed up and communicated both the individual stories of each song and the overall story of the cycle as a whole. In the first two numbers, Lang occasionally encountered small intonation problems, but she soon focussed her voice more securely and the quality of her sound was exquisite throughout.
The sustained control of 'Seit ich ihn gesehen' ('Since first seeing him') stood out against the happier and faster 'Er, der Herrlichste von allen' ('He, the most wonderful of all'), Spencer particularly excelling in the light, floating accompaniment of the latter. Lang's story-telling skills came to the fore in 'Ich kann's nicht fassen' ('I cannot grasp it'), a welcome reminder of what a natural stage animal she is (she returns to Covent Garden as Kundry in Parsifal in December and as Ortrud in Lohengrin in a future season). The famous 'Du Ring an meinem Finger' ('You ring on my finger') - a token of the composer's love for his wife, Clara Wieck - found Lang's naturally full contralto-like sound at its most warmly caressing, while 'Helft mir, ihr Schwestern' ('Help me, O sisters') was taken at a hectic, skittish pace. The remaining three songs were equally beautifully executed, but perhaps the most touching moment of all was that repetition of the opening song by the piano alone: Lang acted the heartbreak of losing her loved one with a piercingly elegiac expression on her face.
Yet somehow the deliberate simplicity of Schumann's cycle faded into insignificance alongside the eleven Lieder (including two encores) by Richard Strauss. Like most opera composers - Mozart, Haydn, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner and Stravinsky amongst them - Strauss also composed a significant output of songs (though their quantity is unusually high in his case), many of which were performed by the composer and his wife Pauline (a soprano) in acclaimed recitals around the world.
What this concert demonstrated was the composer's ability to graft the vibrancy of the stage onto the more intimate form of the art song. For instance, the opening piece ('Kling!') is an excessive and highly melodramatic text with an onomatopoeic element, by Karl Henckel; yet Strauss' setting embraces the vividness of the imagery ('I thought my wretched soul was already snatched away from the raging sorrow of evil times') and creates something approaching an operatic aria. Lang's singing here was simply breathtaking, her full tone in the middle register equalled by spot-on pitching at the top of the voice.
Also reminiscent of an operatic scena is 'Wir beide wollen springen' ('We shall both now leap up'), which features sweeping arpeggios in the piano part representing the wind; Spencer's performance relished the allegory and was the perfect foil for Lang's sharp, bright vocal rendition. And her ample phrasing in 'Lob des Leidens' ('In praise of sorrow') climaxed in an emphatic delivery of the final line, 'No one kisses so ardently as those who must part forever'.
She showed a phenomenal bloom in the famous 'Wiegenlied' ('Lullaby') and portrayed sadness and poignancy in the equally renowned 'Befreit' ('Freed'). Yet the highlights were perhaps the two encores. The autumnal song 'Morgen' ('Morning') was both sung and played with a glorious golden tone, while 'Mit deinen blauen Augen', a setting of a poem by Heine, was wittily delivered by Lang; Spencer negotiated the cross-handed accompaniment part with ease.
The rapturous applause was a fitting tribute to these artists' committed performances.