Wigmore Hall Live: Brahms & Schumann | Tchaikovsky, Musorgsky & Rorem

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson; Julius Drake (WHLive 0024) | Gerald Finley; Julius Drake (WHLive 0025)

11 December 2008 4.5 stars3 stars

Lorraine Hunt LiebersonThe two latest additions to Wigmore Hall Live's ever-expanding catalogue of song recitals come from a pair of singers who have both distinguished themselves as much on the concert platform as they have on the opera stage. Both are very popular with British audiences and exhibit (or exhibited, in the case of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) talents and a gift for communication particularly suited to the intimate acoustic of the Wigmore Hall.

Hunt Lieberson's recital opens with Brahms's Eight Songs from Op. 57. It takes a few moments for the singer to get her intonation together and balance her voice which, to start with, comes across as excessively weighted towards the top. But once matters are in hand, she reveals an exceptionally appealing approach to Lieder. Every mood and nuance of the text is captured through vocal colour and sensitive rubato, with none of the intrusive and often pedantic picking apart of individual words that can so often prevail in performances of this repertoire. Hunt Lieberson aims for, and achieves, beautiful singing first and foremost, and uses this as the basis of her interpretation. The results are, if anything, more direct and moving than those attained by singers who seek to impose expression on a text through effects and gestures from the outside. I believe a large part of Hunt Lieberson's popularity with audiences stemmed from the simple honesty of her delivery.

Hunt Lieberson was billed variously during her career as a soprano and more frequently as a mezzo-soprano, the latter being the case on this disc, but throughout this recital, she shows many colours that would seem to entitle her to lay claim to contralto status. Perhaps she avoided such a tag to prevent the possibility of others imposing restrictions on her operatic repertoire, but there is an unmistakable, rare richness to her voice that makes it especially beguiling.

There is a charming fragility to the performances of the Brahms songs, the texts of which caused shock in their day due to their sensuality. This slightly tentative quality in the singing gives the impression that any corporeal desire in the poetry is born out of genuine love. What one loses in terms of eroticism is more than made up for in the warmth of Hunt Lieberson's approach, and the results draw the listener in to the poet's predicament far more than other interpretations I have heard which highlight the physical yearning in the words. This isn't to say that Hunt Lieberson sings without urgency – one is thoroughly swept away, for instance, as she climaxes in the fifth song with the words 'Du göttlich Weib'.

The Brahms group is followed by four of Schumann's Lieder from Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre Op. 98a. The singer again performs with more precision and reserve than is sometimes afforded these songs, so that whilst in some hands they can seem operatic in nature and desperate in feeling, here they feel rather classical. This creates the impression that Mignon's yearning to get out of her situation is a more profound, ongoing state of sorrow, rather than an isolated passionate outburst. There is real anguish and expression however, particularly in the third song, 'Heiß mich nicht reden', and if some might find the absence of any special inflection on a line like 'Doch füllt ich tiefen Schmerz genug' a little odd, the overall, goal-orientated direction of the fourth song towards the final line 'Macht mich auf ewig wieder jung!' makes it clear the interpretation has been thought out at the macro level in a way that eschews distracting details and convinces thoroughly.

The concert continues with what must be one of the best performances of Schumann's song cycle Frauenliebe und –leben on record. Hunt Lieberson is at one with her pianist, Julius Drake, in an approach which, although never extrovert, feels absolutely natural and inevitable. The performing edition used appears to be in keys lower than the original, which suits Hunt Lieberson very well, and allows her to do seemingly anything she wants to with her voice. Tempi tend towards the slow side, particularly in the cycle's centrepiece, 'Du Ring an meinem Finger', but the depth with which both artists appear to have identified with the dramatic situation means the music never looses its momentum.

The stillness achieved in the song which deals with the coming of the couple's child, 'Süßer Freund', is spellbinding, and the profundity of the expression of pain in the final song, after the protagonist has been widowed, is remarkable. Drake rounds off the cycle with an unfussy performance of the postlude, notable for its sensitivity and clarity. This is a hugely effective performance of the work which is characterised chiefly by an approach which places absolute trust in the composer, and appears to seek to realise his instructions as faithfully and simply as possible. If only this could be said of more Lieder performances.

Gerald FinleyGerald Finley's recital has aspects in common with Hunt Lieberson's, not least the pianist, Julius Drake again, but also a similarly uncomplicated manner with texts. Finley is also a singer who has not always been consistently described as one voice type. Here, he is listed as a bass-baritone, which is how he seems to be most usually billed these days. However, his opening group of Tchaikovsky songs are delivered, for the most part, in what feel like rather high, baritone keys. It is unfortunate that transpositions were not made, because the results are a little over-wrought, with top F-sharps and Gs that have rather more cutting brightness to them than is necessarily desirable.

Finley's Russian is good, and he differentiates the many nuanced vowel and consonant sounds with a precision which nevertheless feels natural. Tchaikovsky's graceful, romantic sound world suits his lyrical delivery well. The interpretations do, however, feel somewhat generalised, lacking the stillness and insight of Hunt Lieberson's approach, and yet stopping short of the passion in the singing of some other artists who regularly programme Russian song.

Musorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death are similarly wanting in interpretative authority. Although impressive, and not inexpressive, there is no sense that Finley has taken ownership of the pieces. Silences are not long enough, rubati and rallentandi are understated so as to lose their impact, and the overall impression is of a performance that never quite comes off the page. It is a pleasing change however to hear the lyrical sections sung so beautifully, as so many singers seem to have an approach to Musorgsky that borders on the expressionist, even if one would ideally like a little more vocal heft for moments such as the climax of 'Trepak'.

The recital closes with Ned Rorem's War Scenes. With texts by Walt Whitman based on his experiences in the American civil war, and written by Rorem to spell out his stance against Vietnam, they are interesting songs that the composer himself has said could refer to any war. Finley is to be applauded for programming music that makes a change from the usual recital fare, but nevertheless sits well along-side it. The performances are excellent, with Finley managing to make lyrical lines out of what are essentially rather disjunct chromatic successions of notes. The words are crystal clear and, now in his native language, subtly expressive. Julius Drake, who hitherto in the recital has been a supportive voice in the background, makes a sprightly, characterful contribution, depicting some of the graphic scenes in the text with imagination and vigour. Unfortunately however, the quality of the performance notwithstanding, I don't envisage returning to these songs on CD. The nature of the music is such that, experienced live in the context of the recital, I am sure they were an engaging and refreshing inclusion on a concert programme. This is evidenced by the audience reaction, included on this disc. But as pieces to listen to in one's living room, they are unrewarding.

Because of this, and the largely undistinguished nature of the performances of the Russian works on the disc, I cannot recommend this recital with much enthusiasm except to Finley's devotees. The inclusion of the characterful encores by Ives, Rautavaara and Charles will make it a happy souvenir for those who were actually present on the day.

By John Woods